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Monday, August 03, 2009

SA bridges safe-from disclosure that is.

Outback SA bridge-

South Australian Ombudsman Richard Bingham, after investigating a complaint concerning a decision by the Department of Transport to refuse a Freedom of Information application for information about the state of SA bridges, said the claim that disclosure might assist terrorists and endanger lives showed an interpretation of the FOI law that was "irrational, absurd and ridiculous". The Sunday Mail report included this about the Ombudsman's letter to the Department:

"To date, the agency has raised what I considered to be a very generalised and highly speculative argument." He said most of the information was already in the public domain, and questioned why the information could not be released. Mr Bingham said many of the problems with bridges would be visible to the public and, "likewise, many of the photographs included in the documents could be taken by a member of the public". "I question why the disclosure of such information could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any persons, or the security of any structure," he wrote.

Shades of Tim Lester's three year battle to get access to reports about national preparedness to cope with emergencies, finally conceded in his favour about the time the issue of preparedness for bushfires emerged in Victoria following Black Saturday. And of a 2006 NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal decision (Hutchinson and Roads and Traffic Authority, NSW [2006] NSWADT 147) that photographs showing structural details of the Sydney Harbour Bridge could reasonably be expected to facilitate a terrorist attack, although in that case a unique provision (Clause 4A of Schedule 1) of the NSW Freedom of Information Act was at issue rather than the more common exemptions of danger to life or physical safety or danger to the security of any structure. There was no evidence of anything to link the applicant to possible terrorist activity, and plenty of books and photographs about the structure of the bridge are in the public domain. It came down to a simple finding that it was "not irrational, absurd or ridiculous to expect that disclosure of the photographs could facilitate the commission of a terrorist act."

Being alert to, and sensible about, danger to important infrastructure is one thing. Blanket claims like the one in South Australia for everything contained in 696 bridge inspection reports and two earthquake-risk reports, much of which is in the public domain, is as the Ombudsman says "irrational, absurd and ridiculous." And hides inefficiency and information about performance (or not) to deliver safe infrastructure that should be readily available.

Brad Crouch in the Sunday Mail reported that the use of exemptions in SA has soared in recent years. As previously mentioned here, it's one of two state governments (the other WA) that to date have shown no interest in fundamental reform of access to information laws.Correction-should have also added Victoria to that list, where the Government seems to have retired hurt after a flawed reform effort failed to carry the Upper House 18 months ago.

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