Online access to the Register of Senators' Interests
In its annual report for 2008, the
committee noted an approach from a public interest group, OpenAustralia,
proposing to scan the Register of Senators' Interests and publish it on its
website. The committee suggested that the group also publish information about
the status of the register and caveats about its use. The group complied with
the committee's suggestions and now publishes senators' statements of interests
and alterations of interests following tabling of the register at 6 monthly
intervals. The Registrar provides the organisation with copies of the tabled
register for that purpose.
The question has been asked, why
should the public depend on an independent organisation for online access to
the statements of interests of members of parliament?
In recent months, the committee has
received for consultation a proposal by the House of Representatives Committee
of Privileges and Members' Interests for online publication of the Register of
Members' Interests. As the regimes for registration of interests in each House
are broadly similar, it is appropriate for both Houses to consider in tandem
the question of online access to their registers.
The proposals by the House committee
were apparently prompted by the reaction by members to the OpenAustralia
website and some concerns about possible identity fraud. Consequently, the
proposals contemplated the addition of security features such as watermarking
of pages, redaction of signatures and password protection of the document
published on line, in addition to the normal security features applied to pdf
documents published on the Australian Parliament's website. The House
committee emphasised however, that no decisions had been made on the details of
the basic proposal to publish members' statements online.
In principle, the committee supports
the publication of senators' statements of interests online. There are numerous
reasons why it is time to embrace change:
senators' statements are already
published online in two places by OpenAustralia (in a consolidated form) and on
the Senate Tabled Papers website (in the form they are tabled);
personal inspection of the
register is limited in reality to very few people;
there is very little parliamentary
information that is not now published online.
The committee recognises however,
that there is a need to balance transparency in relation to the interests of
senators as elected members of parliament and the right to privacy of the
family members of senators. Under the Senate resolutions, the latter objective
is largely achieved by the requirement for statements of interests of a
senator's spouse or partner, and dependant children, to remain confidential.
This is not the case under the resolutions of the House of Representatives
where the whole statement is public.
The committee has taken advice from
its secretariat and from Senate departmental IT staff in proposing a scheme for
the consideration of senators that is simple, easy to administer and not inconsistent
with versions of senators' statements already available online.
The committee therefore proposes for
the consideration of senators the following scheme, to operate from the
commencement of the next parliament (recognising that new statements will not
be due till 28 days after the first sitting after 1 July 2011):
Statements of interests of
senators (Part A only) will be published on the website of the Committee of
Senators' Interests. A link from the committee's home page will provide access to
an alphabetical list of senators and each senator's statement of interests will
be accessible from that list.
Senators' Part A statements will
be scanned into a pdf document without any watermarking or redaction, and
published under each Senator's name on the list.
Whenever notification of
alterations are received, they will be added to the relevant senator's
statement and the augmented pdf document will be published in place of the
previous one. Readers will therefore have access to a senator's complete
statement as if they were able to inspect the Register.
Updates will be done on a weekly
basis with a notation to that effect on the website.
Mock-ups of what the website would
look like are attached in Appendix 1. The committee has viewed examples on the
test website and is satisfied with the quality and appearance of the
This proposal is for the short-term.
The committee recognises that the majority of notifications of alterations of
interests, if not the majority of statements, are filled out by senators by
hand. This is a significant indication that senators are taking direct
responsibility for the content of their statements, as envisaged by the
resolution, even though some senators' handwriting could not be described as
There is an important issue of the
accessibility of pdf documents on the internet to people with visual
disabilities, and the committee is aware from recent estimates hearings that
the Senate department is working with Vision Australia to improve accessibility
to Senate committee documents. Optical Character Recognition software can be
used with pdf documents to enhance accessibility but no OCR software is
sophisticated enough to recognise the variety of handwriting contained in the
In the longer term, therefore, the
committee intends to investigate other options for collecting and publishing
senators' interests statements. This might involve, for example, designing an
online form that collects information directly to a database which could then be
directly uploaded to the website. This form could also be printed and signed
for lodging and tabling.
The committee will continue to
investigate longer term options. In the meantime, the committee welcomes from
senators (and others?) any response to these proposals and any further
suggestions for online publication of the Register. Any comments should be
of Senators' Interests
Canberra ACT 2600
Or by email to: Senators.Interests@aph.gov.au
committee would appreciate receiving any submissions by 17 February 2010.
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