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Monday, January 15, 2007

No rest for Sydney Morning Herald FOI column

Summer blog

It was good to see that Rick Snell of the University of Tasmania, and Australia's leading academic authority on FOI, has slipped into FOI Editor Matthew Moore's seat at the Sydney Morning Herald, while Moore takes a break.

Rick's column last Thursday, about the contrast between Australia and New Zealand in many important areas associated with access to government information, particularly Cabinet documents, is a welcome reminder that we have a lot to learn about openness and transparency from this neighbour, and of course from elsewhere around the world.

I know that Rick isn't suggesting that New Zealand is an FOI paradise: FOI laws and the way they are implemented will always be to some degree a battleground, in NZ and elsewhere. An article in "Open Government" (Volume 2, No. 1 2006) by a New Zealand academic, Steven Price of Victoria University, based on quantitative data and research conducted with public servants and FOI applicants concluded that the law worked reasonably well and that most requests were granted in full. However Price, in comments that reflect the similar experience of users of FOI in Australia, also found areas of concern (OIA is shorthand for the Official Information Act, NZ's FOI law):
About one OIA request in eight breached the 20 working day statutory deadline, without providing an extension. Most often, when information was withheld, the responses provided little evidence that the law was being followed properly. Bland assertions of “confidentiality”, “commercial sensitivity”, and “privacy” abounded. In more than a quarter of cases, responses did not refer to the requester’s right to complain to the Ombudsmen. In almost three-quarters of cases, officials and Ministers failed to explicitly balance public interest considerations, and when they did, they rarely provided more than lip service. It is possible that behind these glib responses lay a careful, but unexpressed, consideration of the statutory grounds for withholding, but it is difficult to have confidence about that.

Many agencies seemed to wrongly regard policy advice as constituting a class of
documents that need not ever be released, and certainly not until the Minister has
seen them. Whole documents were refused when deletions could have been made or summaries provided. Charges seem to have been employed on occasion to frighten
people off. The various guidelines on the OIA seem to have been frequently flouted.

Twenty years after the passage of the OIA, agencies have little excuse for these sorts
of mistakes. Taken together, they seriously compromise the OIA’s ability to fulfil its constitutional role of promoting accountability and participation.
Notwithstanding, NZ shows the way as Rick's direct links to Cabinet documents released as a matter of routine clearly demonstrate.

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