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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

FOI and Australia's wheat trade scandal

ABC’s Radio National Law Report today included a segment on FOI and the AWB scandal. The program includes a discussion with the Opposition spokesman on public accountability, Kelvin Thompson, about a series of FOI applications he has made for documents concerning communication between various ministers’ offices and AWB. He hasn’t got anywhere so far. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told him that the application would involve examination of over 100 files and over 7000 folios and would be a substantial and unreasonable diversion of resources. As Thompson points out, all such documents have probably been catalogued and provided to the Cole Royal Commission so its hard to see why so much effort would now be required to respond. He is having another go, and applications to other ministers' offices are still to be dealt with.

The program also includes an interview with Rick Snell of the University of Tasmania who comments that one of the reasons why FOI applications of this kind chew up resources is that an agency looks at every line on every page trying to identify material that would justify an exemption claim - the exact opposite of what should be a general presumption in favour of disclosure.

One can only imagine the search for exemptions that would have been underway in the event of FOI applications for documents relevant to AWB’s trade with Iraq before all of this started to spill into the public domain. The Volker inquiry and the Cole Royal Commission have put the issues (or most of them) into the public domain. The usual suspects in the Federal FOI Act – damage to international relations, Cabinet documents, internal working documents, business affairs documents – would no doubt get a good workout. Only one of these exemptions (internal working documents) includes a public interest test. Its a fair guess that a lot of what has emerged as a result of the inquiries would never have seen the light of day.

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