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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Two FOI applications - same old story....

Two media reports over the last week illustrate the highly defensive attitude within federal government agencies when Freedom of Information requests seek access to documents that contain information that could give rise to some controversy. If any confirmation was needed, they show the Federal FOI Act, and the way it is administered, is not achieving the objective of facilitating scrutiny of government.

In "Can we get back to you on that (after the election)?" in The Age, Peter Mares, the host of ABC Radio National's 'The National Interest', recounts an attempt to obtain access to research undertaken that provided the basis for the Federal Government's NetAlert program. Mares wanted more information about a Government claim that "over half of 11- 15 year olds surveyed who chat online are contacted by strangers". This information was included in a four page summary of the survey. What Mares was after was the research itself - information that went to the heart of the justification for a government decision to spend $22million on the program.

Mares asked the minister herself during an interview whether the report would be released, then tried to follow up with the minister's office and relevant government agencies, only to get the run around. In response to an FOI application, he has now been told that the deadline for a response has been extended to 60 days (5 days after the election), and that his request for a reduction in fees on public interest grounds has been rejected because he can't guarantee that the information will be brought to the attention of the public. As Mares points out, it's a bit hard to meet this criteria when he hasn't seen the document.

In "And now for page after page of fatuous excuses" in the Sydney Morning Herald, Matthew Moore details a decision to refuse access to assessments of the outcomes of 28 of the 80 shared responsibility agreements entered into by the Federal Government and indigenous communities in which both sides must fulfill agreed obligations. The 12 page determination includes detail of the many exemptions relied on to justify the decision to refuse access which Moore summarises succinctly as "fatuous nonsense". He acknowledge that there might be good grounds to exempt some parts of some documents but to refuse access to every line of every report "defies credibility".

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