Transparency in Government Bill 2015


Resumed from 14 April 2016; motion of Mr HERBERT (then Minister for Training and Skills).

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS (South Eastern Metropolitan) — I 
am pleased to rise this morning to speak to the oddly named Transparency in Government Bill 2015 — —

Mrs Peulich — Labor style.

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS — Labor style, Mrs Peulich. The first point I would make is the priority that the government has assigned to this bill, because as the title indicates this piece of legislation first came to the house not this year, not last year, but in fact the year before last year. So in terms of the government's legislative program — its priorities as a government, its priorities in
integrity — this is actually a piece of legislation which was brought in by the government two years ago now and which has been sitting on the notice paper in this place for more than a year. It is curious that we now see it come forward today — that the government has now, suddenly, at this point — —

Ms Symes — Because the minister's back!

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS — I welcome the interjection by Ms Symes, who says, 'The minister's back', because it is curious that where legislation in the name of the Special Minister of State was a priority for the government it was handled through this place by the Deputy
Leader of the Government — —

Ms Symes — No, it wasn't.

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS — Well, Ms Symes, I think if you go back and look at the taxation legislation and a number of portfolio areas that the Special Minister of State has carriage of,
where it mattered to the government, the Deputy Leader of the Government carried it. This piece of legislation, which has been in this place for over a year, has not been brought forward. I also point out, Ms Symes — through you, Acting President — that this piece of legislation sat in this chamber for a full five months before the Leader of the Government was
suspended. The fact that it now comes forward, a bill from two years ago, as a priority of the government is curious at a time when we have the issues we have seen in recent weeks around the bail system, around crime and around youth justice in this state. There is the need for the government to move on those.

The Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel has many talents in the preparation of legislation and the preparation of amendments, but it is fair to say that one of the talents the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel does not particularly have is being creative in the titles of bills.

Many of the titles of bills we see — the Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 
2016, the Crimes Legislation Further Amendment Bill 2016, the Statute Law Revision Bill 2017, the Statute Law (Further Revision) Bill 2006 — are pretty dry. So when you get a bill in this place titled Transparency in Government Bill it is a pretty good indication that the title did not come from
the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel, and that this was in fact a creation of the government.

Mrs Peulich — Black comedy.

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS — Mrs Peulich calls it black comedy. I think it is in fact the Special Minister of State being ironic — him having a joke with his colleagues; him having a joke with the house to say the government is bringing forward this platform on transparency in government. In fact it is the sort of legislation which could come from the Ministry of Truth, such is the title.

Mrs Peulich — Maybe he is the minister for propaganda.

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS — The minister for propaganda — put it all in the title and make up for the sins of omission in the content.

We have a bill before us this morning which is boldly titled the Transparency in Government Bill and we have a second-reading speech from the minister which sets out and purports to indicate that this bill is going to lead to enhanced transparency in government reporting. In fact there are some bold claims in the second-reading speech for this legislation: that it will
lead to the mandatory release of certain important performance information and that it will ensure the regular release of certain performance data by public health services and denominational hospitals. It goes on to say that Victorians have a right to clearly understand the performance of these services, being the health services, and have a right to do so without having to go through the freedom of information process to access information. It says the government is committed to providing greater transparency about the way in which the crucial services — health, ambulance and fire services — are operated. It goes on to say that Victorians are entitled to understand how their critical services are performing.

The conclusion of the second-reading speech indicates that this bill will facilitate better access to important information to the public. It will improve the public scrutiny of the critical services that every Victorian values. It goes on:

The bill will also promote a culture of transparency in the reporting of government information, providing Victorians with access to data about the government services which are so vital … Of course, no-one disputes that the health services, the ambulance services and the fire services are crucial to service provision here in this state and that as part of the accountability of those services, reliable, accurate, regular data on their performance is important. It is a very important accountability mechanism for the services themselves, for the
department — or departments in the case of our emergency services and health services — that are responsible for them, and it is an important accountability for the ministers who oversee those departments and agencies. So a framework which would genuinely deliver improved transparency in the release of performance information is one that would be welcomed. It would be a very positive development, but unfortunately the only transparency we get from this piece of legislation is the reference to transparency in the title, because
this bill actually takes us backwards.

This bill sets out some performance measures with respect to fire services and with respect to the performance of the ambulance services and the health services, but in fact the statutory framework set down would, if agencies followed it, lead to substantially less data being released publicly than is currently the case. The government trumpets the fact that, for example, the legislation would require the release of statements of priorities by the health services. The reality is that that already occurs, and if any member of the chamber or member of the public wishes to see a statement of priority, they only need to look at the website of the Department of Health and Human Services, which publishes in PDF form those statements of priorities. The suggestion that this legislation will somehow mean that people will avoid having to access the freedom of information framework to get data does not stand up to scrutiny, because many of the key datasets that this legislation talks about are already available online through the services themselves. 

What is concerning is that the policies for which it has become common practice to release datasets, particularly in the health area, are actually being wound back by this legislation and the datasets that the legislation will mandate the release of are far less than the datasets which we have come to accept in relation to our individual health services and in relation to ambulance services, both in the nature of the data that is collected, as in the sense of the types of services and activities that are reported on, as well as in the geographical make-up of that information, particularly in the case of ambulance services. So we on this side of the house are concerned that we are seeing a statutory framework being introduced which will lead to less information being made available than is currently the case. 

One of the other problems with doing that, in changing the basis of reporting of health service data, is the lack of comparability. One of the key ways in which this data is used in this place, by the committees of this Parliament and by the public in scrutinising the operation of health
services — indeed internally — is to compare previous years performance with current year performance, to look at historic trends and to look at changes in those trends. This framework, in dramatically changing the datasets which are required to be reported under the statutory framework, will make that historical comparison impossible. This is of great concern.

It has been the case in the past that health services, in reporting their performance information, would record a substantial historic time series in each of their periodic publications. That has varied through the years; some quarterly reports do not record as much historical data as others back through previous quarters and previous years. But with a change to the framework that is required to be reported — the base datasets that are required to be reported — any historical comparison is going to become effectively impossible. That is a big concern. This data is important for assessing the performance of our health services. It is important in a budgetary context of understanding where the pressures are, where the changes have occurred and what budgetary interventions have been made in a policy development sense and in a budget setting sense, and it is appropriate that that be in the public domain and that it be in the public domain in a way in which the public and members of Parliament can compare historical performance. So we are deeply concerned that this legislation and the framework it establishes will not allow comparability with the existing reporting framework that has become the accepted practice over the last 10 to 15 years in Victoria. 

One of the other concerns relates to integrity of data. This is a huge challenge across government in any number of areas. Governments are necessarily becoming more reliant on data in policymaking, and data-driven policymaking is a great opportunity for governments here in Victoria, here in Australia and indeed around the world. Some governments — New Zealand is a classic example — have adopted the use of data in policymaking as a priority, using sophisticated data analysis, using broad datasets across multiple agencies, and private sector data as well, to really get a true understanding of the challenges, in the case of New Zealand, in society and where government policy interventions can lead to changes. Having that data available and being confident in its integrity is incredibly important in being able to
rely upon that data in making policy decisions.

It is surprising when we have a statutory framework being established for transparency in government, as the title suggests, that there is nothing in this legislation which leads to any assurance as to the integrity of the data which is being reported. We need to look back no further than the 2008–09 period, when over a series of investigative articles by the Age newspaper it became very apparent that the reporting of hospital statistics, I think particularly in relation to the Royal Women's Hospital, were heavily compromised and that data that was being reported through that 2008–09 period was wrong — substantially wrong. That related to the systems that were being used at the hospital. What emerged at that time though from the government of the day, the Brumby government and indeed the then health minister, Daniel Andrews, were initial denials that there were any problems with the data. For a period of some 12 months there were strident denials that there were any faults with the data that was being reported through the regime at the time, and it was only after an extensive investigation and reporting by the Age newspaper that some 12 or 18 months later it was in fact exposed that those datasets had been corrupted and the data that was reported was substantially false and misleading.

The Auditor-General of the day, Des Pearson, undertook an audit at that time titled Access to Public Hospitals: Measuring Performance, where he commented on the nature and integrity of the reporting framework. His first substantive key finding in that report, which is key finding 1.2.1, notes:

It was not possible to assure that reported performance against the majority of the access indicators fairly represented actual performance.

That is a substantial criticism of a framework which is supposed to provide the data for decision-making purposes — budgetary decision-making purposes and resource allocation decision-making purposes. That investigation by the Auditor-General really highlights the need for a framework that ensures the integrity of the data that is being reported through the
periodic reports that come from our emergency services and health services.

So we are concerned that this Transparency in Government Bill does nothing to provide assurance or require assurance as to the integrity of the data that is being reported. To address that, work is done elsewhere in government around data integrity, particularly in the information systems area, particularly work done through the privacy and data protection commission area, around encouraging standards for the protection of data and standards for the integrity of data, but this key statutory framework is not going to do that.

So as one of a number of amendments that the coalition will be moving later in the committee stage we will be seeking to insert in the bill in relation to each agency that is obliged under this framework to report a requirement that both the responsible agency head — the secretary — and the responsible minister certify in each report by way of statutory declaration that they are not aware of any defect in the data that is being presented.

We believe that is a reasonable threshold to require ministers and agency heads to meet. It does not mean they must certify that the data is not wrong — we accept that errors can occur. Through problems with the reporting framework, typically electronic reporting and aggregation, errors can occur, but by inserting an amendment of that nature we are at least getting an assurance that we are not being deliberately misled. The head of an agency and
the minister must both certify in a statutory declaration, in the context that they are subject to perjury if they deliberately lie, that they are not aware of errors.

We cannot have a situation where an agency head or a minister becomes aware that data is corrupted but, because the numbers are positive, allows them to be published anyway. We see that as a minimum integrity threshold which would give this framework some basis, some validity of a statutory nature. Currently all this bill does is say that these agencies as named — the health services, the ambulance service, the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board — must report. They actually must report less data than they report now, and there is nothing about data integrity. At least inserting a provision that says that the minister and the secretary must certify that they are not aware of errors gives some rigour to the data that is being reported and gives some validity to having a statutory framework.

The other area that we are seeking to amend, and that is largely by way of a proposed schedule, is to preserve — and the Leader of the Opposition will no doubt talk to this at some length given it is her portfolio responsibility — the existing datasets which are reported under the current voluntary reporting framework. Those datasets have become widely accepted and understood in the community, and for reasons, as I said before, of historical comparability as well as transparency we believe it is appropriate that those existing datasets are preserved. Given it is the government's desire to establish a statutory framework, we believe they need to be reflected in the statutory framework.

The coalition is not going to oppose this legislation. Our concern is that most of the transparency in this legislation is in the title and not in the contents. If we are to establish a transparency in government framework — a statutory framework for performance reporting by ambulance services, by the fire service and by hospitals — there should be some rigour to it. It should reflect as a minimum the current datasets which are being released now and have been released periodically for the last decade to 15 years, and it should have at least a minimum requirement that the integrity of that data be attested to by both the secretary and the minister. They should both have to individually give their endorsement that they are at
least not aware of errors in order to give this some rigour.

We will not oppose this legislation. We do look forward to the committee's consideration of this bill and the consideration of these amendments. If we are to have a statutory framework, it needs to at least give us what we have now and at least give us some assurance around the integrity of the data that is going to be reported.

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