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Friday, March 28, 2008

Carter Center call to action on FOI

The Atlanta Declaration and Plan of Action for the Advancement of the Right of Access to Information has been published this week, the follow on from the conference organised by the Carter Center in February and attended by invited experts and interested parties including Australia's Rick Snell.

The intention is to make a renewed effort with international organisations and governments around the world to promote access to information as the foundation for citizen participation, good governance, corruption prevention and accountability in accordance with principles set out in the Declaration. Developing and developed countries would all benefit from using the principles as a check list for assessment of their access to information regime.

For example, Australian freedom of information laws, policies and practices would seem to fall short of the standard in a number of areas including:
  • failure to cover legislative bodies, and to apply to an organisation that receives public funds or benefits or carries out public functions
  • removal of unnecessary obstacles such as cost
  • narrowly drawn exemptions all subject to a public interest override
  • mandatory full disclosure of any secret or confidential document after a reasonable period of time unless exceptional reasons specified at the time of creation
  • clear penalties and sanctions for non-compliance by public officials
  • in some jurisdictions at least no information commissioner or specialist ombudsman with power to make binding and enforceable decisions on review
  • public education and training to empower persons to make full use of the right
  • companion legislation to compel disclosure of political donations and lobbying activity, and the repeal of contradictory provisions such as those in an official secrets act
NSW as the only jurisdiction that does not review and report on compliance with the law (the requirement to do so was removed in 1991) would also fail on that good practice requirement.

Apart from provoking some introspection about how we do things here, the Declaration should also be of interest to Ausaid given our foreign aid commitment to improved governance in developing countries, and to the Treasury which occupies the Australian seat at the World Bank.

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