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Thursday, November 14, 2019

The state of FOI is no joke

We are far better off with freedom of information legislation than we were without it (37 years ago).  FOI delivers often ( recent examples: Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price charged taxpayers $77,254 for a recent week-long visit to Europe; serious complaints about mistreatment and abuse of children with a disability) but often not and often then only after pettifogging, long delays and battles that are costly all round.

What's wrong?

The Federal law is out of date and out of line with emerging best practice, the culture issue of excessive secrecy has never been properly addressed, champions, defenders, advocates within government have been few and far between, the information access function of responding to requests for information in many agencies is under resourced but the spin factories cope well, thank you very much, and independent oversight is underweight with three (Correction one) commissioner when parliament legislated three struggling to manage the workload and just now in 2019 on its third own motion investigation of what's going on (at Home Affairs) since 2010.

Frequent users know all this-below just some of the observations in recent months about the state of affairs as media organisations join the fray with their Right to Know Press Freedom campaign -after a long hiatus.

Government silence

But the minister responsible overall, Attorney General Christian Porter is silent and has been sitting on recommendations (never sighted publicly) from his department since March 2018 on next steps beyond a bit of a chat with interested parties two years ago about implementation of a commitment in December 2016 to ensure information laws, policies and practices are fit for the twenty first century. Progress on implementation is officially 'Delayed'-a relief at least to those of us thinking 'Ditched' might be more apt.

Reform delayed or ditched?

Meanwhile Attorney General's tells us (Milestone 5) work is underway "on improving guidance material to raise awareness of existing online information about archives and FOI and explore options to better assist users to navigate FOI and archives processes. This work has been delayed but both agencies are working to develop a new information access and education resource by May 2020 in time for 'Information Awareness Month.’

Is that all there is?

The right to know what government knows unless not knowing is in the best interests of all of us is a cornerstone of democracy.

What those outside government who take a close interest say about this state of affairs.
A sample.


It's 'Your right to know nothing"-Karen Middleton (The Saturday Paper) on Insiders ABC TV 10 November .


"No other developed democracy holds as tight to its secrets, experts say." New York Times Australia May Well Be the World's Most Secretive Democracy

"Freedom of Information is a joke." Phil Coorey (Australian Financial Review) on Insiders ABC TV 27 October

 "..of course, no-one should be above the law, but nor should government in one of the world’s most secretive democracies be beyond scrutiny, especially when freedom-of-information rights have been so compromised as to be rendered virtually useless."
Tony Walker, Fairfax Media-Time to enshrine press freedom.

Failure to fill watchdog positions  (at the OAIC) can 'be read by the public service as a message that transparency is not important.. I think the spirit of the law is being broken." John McMillan former Commonwealth Ombudsman and Australian Information Commissioner. Government approach to FOI undermines transparency .

"One of the objectives of the FOI Act is to provide speedy access to information. If requests are held up for very long periods – sometimes a year or more – this is hardly in keeping with the objectives of the law.” Peter Timmins Australians face long waits for documents

"Freedom of information has become an area where it is government that can be accused of gaming the system, rather than any member of the public....Anecdotally, it is striking how many people seem to have simply given up on FOI."  John Pesutto Senior Fellow at the School of Government Melbourne University. FOI A right to know or just ask?

"Australian policy on human rights is in a mess, even if no bigger a mess than many other policies. Those in government make parenthood statements about freedom of speech and the right to information, about the importance of investigative journalism and fearless reporting. Yet they seem unable to understand when freedoms are threatened. It was no coincidence that a recent campaign by newspapers had front pages redacted. The notion that citizens have a right to the information on which they might judge government actions has become a joke." Dr Tony Smith, former political science academic A flicker of interest in human rights

"Journalists will now try to answer.. questions via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Sadly, the FOI system in Australia has become a joke. Recently, the Guardian published a report into the state of FOI in Australia that found some disturbing trends. Requests are expensive, and even for non-controversial information are now increasingly censored or simply rejected without good reason. FOI refusals are at their highest levels since 2010-11." Gordon Farrer Lecturer in Journalism at RMIT.
 Uncovering political lies now more important than ever

"Journalists continue to encounter barriers to accessing information including systemic delays in
processing, failures of agencies to assist with applications and poor decision making;
- Review processes are inadequate and alternative means of review at an early stage must be available
(for example, Administrative Appeals Tribunal);
- Exemptions should not be expanded or ‘reformulated’ (eg, the provision of frank and fearless advice);
- The cost of applications is often a disincentive to seek information; and
- Processing time assessments and limits are tools to defeat FOI applications."
Australia's Right to Know Submission to the Senate Environment and Communications Committee inquiry press freedom.

"We see extraordinary delays. We see unreasonable costs being applied to applicants and we see a range of excuses brought up to justify not releasing information....Documents are being classified as secret when they shouldn't be.. There doesn't seem to be any effective independent overview of that classification system." Paul Murphy Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance Your Right to Know


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