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Monday, February 01, 2010

Tough and expensive going getting behind Climate Change

Mike Steketee in The Weekend Australian  had a follow up piece on attempts by Richard Denniss of The Australia Institute to access under the Freedom of Information Act, documents held by the Department of Climate Change, this time those prepared to help inform Minister Penny Wong and her advisers of the details, merits, limitations and criticisms of the Emissions Trading System. Broad requests of this kind aren't the best way to frame an FOI application but you can understand why Denniss went this way, as a previous attempt had been interpreted narrowly so he  missed everything but inconsequential documents.

You guessed it: the Department said it holds 210,507 relevant documents and told Denniss  the bill would be over $256,586.98:  $73,102.58 for search and retrieval for 4873.505 hours work, $141,383 for 7069.15 hours of decision making at $20 an hour and $42,101.40 for the possible release of 210,507 documents of an average two pages at 10c a copy. And it still reserved the right to knock him back entirely on grounds of substantial and unreasonable diversion of resources.

What it points up is that applicants who want to get behind government decisions have the dice loaded against them.There are no tools available to assist an applicant before making an application to know what documents exist; applications drafted too narrowly may miss entirely; those drafted broadly to avoid this fate run into cost and delay hurdles. All this before anyone examines the documents to see what might be claimed exempt. In this case Steketee says the Department wouldn't help the applicant by telling him how charges could be reduced if he tweaked his application to cut out costly aspects that were unlikely to contain information of the kind he was really after.

There is something wrong with a system where an attempt to find out what government's advisers think about a scheme to address what it says is the greatest challenge of our times will take 4800 hours to locate and extract documents, presumably using highly sophisticated technology, and 7000 hours to decide what can be released.

The Rudd Government's culture change and new law promises may not deliver much improvement. Steketee says the department assured him that in dealing with the application "it has taken into account the provisions and the spirit of the new legislation, even though it is not yet in force and it is mindful of the obligations placed on it by the proposed reforms."

Well, The Australia Institute as a non-profit will presumably automatically qualify for 5 of those 11942 hours of processing time free under the proposed new charges regime. John or Mary Citizen pursuing the same inquiry won't.

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