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Monday, May 25, 2009

Blanket exclusions and exemptions rarely justified

Exclusions of some government agencies entirely or in respect of certain functions from freedom of information laws, and exemptions for classes of documents with no requirement to find harm from disclosure or to consider public interest factors, leave a significant hole in the principles of open, transparent and accountable government that underpin the law. They can rarely be justified.

A thought prompted by this
Sydney Morning Herald report of a comment by the compliance monitor, the Inspector, of the Police Integrity Commission, in a letter to a parliamentary committee:
Mr Moss expressed "grave disquiet" about the suppression orders in this case, "which continues to keep the relevant issues shielded from public scrutiny, despite the obvious issues of public interest and commission accountability involved"
The matter relates to the exercise of Commission powers under the relevant act. Mr Moss QC thinks the Commission has not had appropriate regard to the principle of open justice. FOI wouldn't be much help either if you sought information held by the Commission as it (and a long list of others) is excluded from the Act in respect of documents concerning corruption prevention, complaint handling, investigative and report functions. No change is proposed in the Open Government Information Bill Exposure Draft. In fact the current exclusion remains and other information held by the Commission is likely to be non-accessible because of secrecy provisions in the Police Integrity Act which are specifically listed in the Draft as measures that trump the disclosure provisions of the OGI Act.

Of course highly sensitive information should be protected against disclosure where this would prejudice an investigation or inquiry, reveal a confidential source, endanger life or safety etc. Exemptions in the FOI Act and proposed provisions in the OGI Act justifiably protect such information.However blanket exclusions, and widely drawn exemptions-like powers to issue suppression orders- if used improperly can have other consequences, undesirable for broader public interests and agency accountability.

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