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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Mandarin: dark days for FOI, but we're yet to see the penny drop

Stephen Easton in The Mandarin FOI laws: fixing the chilling effect on frank advice
(Subscription) writes about the laws, culture and tone at the top.

Extracts (no false modesty here)
(Timmins) and many others notice a distinct air of secrecy around the current federal government — more so than past governments — and Timmins says top public servants are getting the message to play along. “There’s no prizes or honours being awarded for [public servants] who efficiently and effectively administer the FOI Act..."....

The current Commonwealth government’s transparency track record.. has been “very poor” in his view, particularly in contrast to this 2013 pre-election promise:
“We will restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you.”

Timmins also recalls George Brandis admonishing Labor way back in 2009 with the old adage that actions speak louder than words, and he now uses the same standard to judge the Coalition, pointing particularly to its ongoing battle against the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, and the government’s refusal to answer simple factual questions, particularly around immigration and border protection.

Since there is not enough Senate support to do away with the office, the government is trying to achieve its aim by stealth. The FOI commissioner role has been vacant since December and now that information commissioner John McMillan, whose term was due to end soon, has gone to work for the NSW government, it is possible he won’t be replaced anytime soon either. Only privacy commissioner Timothy Pilgrim remains.

“The claim is that they’ll save $10 million over the four-year period [by abolishing the OAIC and] that it would help FOI applicants by removing complexity,” Timmins said. “Well, I’m afraid that claim was not evidence based. I think the claim of how much money it would save is a bit questionable, and the claim that it would simplify the system is without evidence.”

Timmins suggests some public servants dealing with FOI requests are now “gaming” the system because they know that even if they reject a request on spurious grounds, it will take a very long time for the OAIC to review the decision. That was the impression he got from the responses to two requests he put in with the Attorney-General’s Department recently.

“As journalists will point out, getting access to something 12 months after you ask for it [isn't helpful because] the story is probably gone by then, and it’s only the most dedicated or the journalists with the longest lead times who can effectively use the act in that context,” he added. “So I think it’s pretty dark days myself, about FOI generally, and we’re yet to see a penny drop with the government that this is a cause of real concern.”

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