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Friday, December 14, 2007

By by Philip good by

Sorry, didn't mean to frighten you (file photo from the ABC Insiders)

There was much less fanfare (in fact none) associated with the the release of the Federal FOI Annual Report for 2006-7. Understandably, no media release from the former Attorney General this year - a year ago Mr. Ruddock said the previous year's report showed the FOI Act was achieving its intended purpose.

This year, the report is left to speak for itself. Overall applications down 6% on last year; 87% seeking access to personal information; 95% granted in full or part.

A couple of other interesting statistics: requests for documents relating to policy and government decisions down from 4680 to 3879 - hardly testimony that FOI has led to greater participation in government affairs; 1000 of these requests took more than 60 days to process (over 650 took longer than 90 days, but exactly how long we don't know); applications for internal review in only 51% of cases saw the original determination affirmed, suggesting quite a lot of decisions wouldn't stand up to scrutiny.

The report says that figures provided by government agencies showed only 56 applications for review were lodged with the Administrative Decisions Tribunal, but the Tribunal reports 120.

There are real obstacles for any applicant who takes a matter to the Tribunal, wins, and seeks an order for costs. The criteria are tight, and the Tribunal powers are only to make a recommendation to the Attorney General that costs be paid. The Attorney General has a discretion to pay or not pay. A year ago, the Annual Report revealed that a total amount of $606 was paid for applicant's litigation costs. This year $85,821! No explanation in the report but some applicant(s) got lucky.

Agencies also spent an extra $800,000 on solicitor's costs ($2, 827,256).

The total estimate of costs associated with dealing with FOI in Federal Government agencies was around $25million including staff costs of $20million.

Just to put it in perspective - the Annual Report of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet showed that the Howard Government spent nearly $285 million on advertising in the year to 30 June. We all have a sense that a lot more was spent after that in the lead up to 24 November.

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