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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Senator Wong: Some PM&C barriers to FOI requests "do not meet laugh test."

In Senate Estimates for the prime minister's department on Monday Opposition Senator Wong had a few moments to raise questions about the handling of her Freedom of Information applications, and wasn't moved by the standard response: the department takes its FOI responsibilities seriously.

Senator WONG: Sure. I actually have a number of questions on FOI for Ms Kelly. Ms Kelly, these are some of the various answers I have been getting to freedom-of-information requests. 
One was that the department stopped the clock to ask whether 'transmitted from the department to the PM's office' included providing the document to the DLO. That is how documents get transmitted. 

It took the department nearly five months to make a decision, when the statutory time frame is 30 days. I did get a statement saying, 'I regret the delay.' 

It took three months to make a decision in relation to an FOI regarding the appointment of Ms Mirabella to the board of the ASC. 

The department has refused to provide the order of precedence on privacy grounds, on the basis that this would reveal the names of ministers—I thought that was a novel response!—and refused to agree to an order for the production of documents on the basis that there had been an FOI request lodged. Perhaps I will leave that. 

But, just on the first four, what is the issue? Why is the department being so difficult in relation to freedom-of-information requests? Honestly, to say to me: does 'transmitted from the Department of the PM&C to the PM's office' include the DLO? Anyone who has worked in a minister's office knows, frankly, that is a ridiculous suggestion.
Ms Kelly : I am not able to deal with those four requests in globo. In relation to each individual request, I would need to have the documents in front of me to refresh my memory in relation to the details of that specific request. The department does take its responsibilities under the act—
Senator WONG: You keep telling me that—
Ms Kelly : seriously.
Senator WONG: You keep telling me that, and I keep saying accountability is serious. But my observation—and you can correct it if it is wrong—is that as many barriers as possible are put up in relation to FOI requests. I am happy to discuss this on another occasion. But that is my observation as somebody who has made a number of requests. Some of these do not meet the laugh test: you do not want to release the names of ministers? They are released; they are public!
In this post 18 months ago I suggested the department's FOI procedures bring into question what inputs from the PM's Office and from senior officers may influence decisions and who in fact makes the decision, but also efficiency and cost given their elaborate nature. It's quite a process. 

Senator Wong's experience isn't unique based on a quick glance at Righttoknow applications to PM&C.

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