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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Australia slips in world FOI law rankings

 Just put it down to a bad week?

The Right To Information Index compiled by Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy was updated on 1 October with Australia's Freedom of Information Act dropping two points from 86 to 84 since last year, and slipping in the rankings (now extended from 89 to 93 national laws) from 39th to 48th place. (Another doff of the hat to the Kiwis- the NZ Official Information Act scored 93 points and stands at 32 in the rankings.)

Movement in our placing may have been largely the result of improvements elsewhere but hard to find an explanation for the loss of two points - in the Sanctions and Protections category - as nothing has changed in the meantime. That category (2/8) and Scope (10/30) were our poorest but there are some tough calls in the latter. For example the assessment continues to mark us down for the exclusion from coverage of the Legislature but the parliamentary departments - for the moment at least - have been confirmed as within scope of the act since the last assessment. That should have been worth a point or two. There is other questionable scoring in this category, for example on the basis that the Governor General is entirely outside scope. While close, depending on the interpretation of "matter of an administrative nature", it's not quite right either.
(Update: the Centre for Law and Democracy tells me the points were deducted following my comment last time that the assessment had mistaken a state level whistleblower protection law for a national level one. The absence of the latter-still the situation- is the cause of the mark down. I wasn't aware they had noted my comment and accepted it a year ago.)

No names no pack drill regarding the assessor- not me. Nor Dr Johan Lidberg of Murdoch University who has been involved previously but not this time, he tells me. (Update: a desk level assessment in Canada.)

What happens in practice of course is the important test- but it's not exactly been a great week on that front here either. 

As the publishers put it:
In some cases, countries with relatively weak laws may nonetheless be very open, due to positive implementation efforts, while even relatively strong laws cannot ensure openness if they are not implemented properly. Regardless of these outlying cases, over time a strong access to information law can contribute to advancing openness and help those using it to defend and promote the right of access to information.
Shortcomings that cost the Australian law points include:
  • No constitutional right of access to information;
  • Blanket exclusions from the act for intelligence organisations and a range of other executive government agencies. Private sector bodies in receipt of significant government funding are not covered. All in all a deduction of 20 points in Category 2 for these weaknesses.
  • Excessive "wiggle room" on time limits.
  • Fees-not limited to cost of reproduction.
  • The extent of secrecy provisions in other legislation.
  • Broadly framed exemptions, some not based on a harm test. No universal public interest override, for example for disclosure of information about corrupt conduct.
  • No sanctions for improper public service employee conduct such as undermining the act or destruction of documents. 


  1. Surely Australia should get an extra point for #50, as unauthorised destruction of Cth records is prohibited by s24(1) of the Archives Act 1983 (Cth)!?

  2. Oh, and for #57, is the Archives Act relevant, in providing for a minimum standard of record management?

  3. Steve, Yes I'd add points for those. With a couple of others we're easily up around 90 points and at least 10 places higher in the rankings. Perhaps the most useful takeaway is that by international comparison the law is in the Average category. Results and outcomes matter more. On that score the unscientific comparative assessment would likely be better than average, despite many areas of disappointment. Thanks for the input.