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Friday, March 07, 2008

The FOI run run run-around

A number of newspaper reports and other freedom of information developments over the last week or so illustrate, in some instances ,that the law and the way it is applied is to avoid disclosure or give the applicant the run around. You can only wonder at the cost to the public purse, and to the damage to credibility of the organisations or governments involved.
  • The 18 month long saga of the Sydney Morning Herald attempt to access surveys of public opinion about the Federal Government's Workchoices advertisements, finally ends in success. Read the secret research and you can understand why the Government didn't want us to know that it wasn't going down well at the time. The rest is history.
  • In comparison, the 4 month delay and $1000 in charges that the Herald Sun encountered in seeking access to information about mistreatment of children in Victoria's child care centres was a breeze, except that the identities of the centres couldn't be disclosed because it would "breach confidence".
  • Now that you mention "breach of confidence" that's why the NSW Department of State and Regional Development refused access to documents that would show how the government calculated the estimate of $150million in economic benefits that it publicly claimed would flow from 'World Youth Day' in Sydney later this year. Really!
  • Then there is this evidence in the trial of the former Deputy Premier of Tasmania, Bryan Green, charged with interfering with an executive officer of the government who, according to a senior public servant "went ballistic" when advice was given about the dangers of a special arrangement with a friend in an email, because it might be obtained through freedom of information.
  • And finally, Michael McGuirk for years has been seeking access to legal advice given in 2002 to the University of NSW by Bret Walker SC in regard to the rights and legal obligations of members of the Universty Council. The matter started in the Administrative Decisions Tribunal in 2005, went to the Appeal Panel, then the Supreme Court, then back to the Appeal Panel which handed down a decision this week. It decided that despite the fact that the document was subject to legal professional privilege it should be released. The reasons (paragraph 34): the advice is now 5 years old, does not relate to a current issue or dispute, the applicant already has obtained extracts from an unknown source, and the University had been prepared to waive privilege and provide the document in an unsuccessful attempt to settle another matter with the applicant. Hardly sounds like anything much at all, but you have to wonder about the vigorous efforts over 3 years to argue why it shouldn't be disclosed. In a separate but related decision, the ADT also decided that those parts of the minutes of a council meeting which included a summary of the advice, should be released to the applicant.

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