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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Slowly, slowly FOI stays where it has been in Victoria

Josh Gordon and David Rood in The Age suggest interference from the Premier's Office in the handling of departmental Freedom of Information requests and less openness in some respects from the Baillieu government than from its predecessor, denied by a spokesman who blames the Opposition for clogging up the system. One glimmer of some change is the quote that the government will introduce legislation to establish an independent FOI commissioner within the next three months. That will be about a year after the government took office. For the generally laid back Baillieu government it probably passes as high priority attention.

While welcome, if that's all there is it will still leave Victoria with a 30 year old FOI act that in most respects is a mirror image of the Commonwealth act as it once was. But no longer since amendments in important respects over the years, particularly in 2010. The Victorian act is even further out of line with the FOI law mark 2 versions in various forms now in place in Queensland, NSW and Tasmania, law that could be further improved by any government really serious about the issue of transparency. There has been no inkling of interest from the Victorian government, publicly at least, in reform on this scale. 

And if the Ombudsman has been right in reports about the "culture" within the Victorian public service that gives rise to problems associated with implementation, saying and doing nothing for 12 months or more while "same old-same old" approaches continue isn't the way to start turning things around. The Ombudsman had this to say in his annual report last month:
I continue to see departments and agencies applying the Act as an information protection system. I regularly identify:
• significant delays in processing requests
• restrictive interpretations of the Act
• administrative actions that are contrary to or simply disregard
the Attorney General’s guidelines and the administrative recommendations from my 2006 review.
We'll no doubt hear that the proposed FOI commissioner-with $1 million in the current year's budget- will wave the magic "openness" wand when the office is established sometime after legislation to create the position passes. Public servants who have experienced unchanging "tone at the top" for years that suggests otherwise may-or may not-be touched.

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