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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Gaming the FOI system?

The Australian Financial Review reports today (paywall) that the NSW Supreme Court imposed a temporary order preventing publication of the content of ministerial briefing papers and memos prepared for cabinet about negotiations with car manufacturers concerning subsidies. The documents were mistakenly released by the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education in a response to a Freedom of Information request.

That issue to one side, and noting Minister Combet's assurances that the information mistakenly released is very sensitive and that jobs and investment would be at risk if disclosed, what the AFR has been able to tell us suggests the department may have been gaming the system in this case.

It's a contrast to the picture painted by Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan in recent speeches and articles. While Professor McMillan is right to point out that overall, the "development of open government over the past thirty years in Australia — and over the past couple of years in particular — is an enormous success story", the AFR throws some light on a dark corner. I'd be amazed if this is the only agency with one. (Update-I didn't know at the time about information emerging concerning the immigration department.)

Yesterday the AFR reported that most of the substantive information in the 39 documents the department intended to release had been redacted. "One described a visit by then Manufacturing Minister Kim Carr to Detroit in January to meet General Motors and Ford. Every paragraph in the memo was blacked out, including who Senator Carr met and what was said at a press conference." The titles of the 39 documents weren't disclosed until the internal review stage. Two were “Visit to Ford’s Broadmeadows Manufacturing Facility” and “Toyota announcement on job losses”
Today Marcus Priest reports the department redacted publicly available information such as ministerial talking points.

Aaron Patrick details how the information intended to be withheld was neatly contained in red boxes in documents supplied. Some contained "stunning revelations. Parts were embarrassing. Other sections were mundane or contained information on the public record. One table I initially thought was interesting took me three minutes to locate on Google. It was published by the federal Treasury in 2010."

Patrick concludes that FOI exemptions were abused.

The AFR is considering lodging a complaint to the commissioner that the department  withheld information it was legally required to disclose.

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