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Friday, August 26, 2011

Freedom of information and corporate Australia

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The last two posts show tobacco interests use freedom of information legislation, and fight a knock back in these instances at least, but little is known about use of access to information laws by business generally. The top end of town, for over 30 years, has  seemed to be more concerned about the possibility that information about corporate affairs, in government hands, might be released to others, than in broader issues concerning rights of access. It has generally been missing in action from public discussion and debate about good government issues, openness and transparency standards included. As to use of FOI, Ian McIlwraith in today's Sydney Morning Herald (second item) offers this advice:
A tip to corporate Australia: If you are not already doing it, send in a freedom of information request after meeting with a government minister, so you can look at the briefing notes handed them before your meeting. You are unlikely to learn anything spectacular, but at least you will learn the formulas used in the corridors of power.
That's just the start of it if business is interested.

I'm not aware of research on corporate Australia as an FOI applicant or much in the way of public comment on the issue but recall seeing somewhere that in the US, business is among the biggest users. In Australia from what is known, it seems quite a contrast. Here is what we know from the little information available.

The Queensland 2010 survey of public awareness is the only recent published information about use of access to information laws. As only 4% of those surveyed had made an application, the statistics (Question 14 and Table 4) come with all sorts of cautions regarding sizeable margins of error. I'm not sure in any event that information about what those applicants asked for tells us anything about use of FOI/RTI by corporates:
Information about myself 66%
Information associated with the conduct of a business 19.6%
Information to lobby or pursue an issue 15.9%
As a legal representative 6.75%
Other 15.9%

Information about corporates contesting decisions through resort to external review-not quite on point regarding use of the act-is of some relevance.

Again Queensland offers some insights. Other jurisdictions don't appear to publish this detail. The Information Commissioner's annual report 2009-2010 (page 29) lists applicants for review of agency FOI/RTI decisions by category-in this case companies seem reasonably represented:
Individuals 224
Companies 37
Journalists 27
Lobby and Community Groups 7
Politicians 5
Prisoners 20
Public Servant 1

An Austlii search for FOI/RTI/GIPA commissioner/ombudsman, and tribunal or court decisions this year identified (apart from the tobacco cases) a handful of corporations involved in external review cases either as the applicant for information or third party opposing release. It's hardly a stellar cast of corporate heavyweights either. A corporation could of course be involved in other cases where the application was in the name of an individual, so this may be far from a complete picture of corporate representation:
BHP Coal Pty Ltd ( 22 June-Queensland)
Qualtime Association Inc (29 June-Queensland)

Corrections and additions, and comment or wisdom on the whys and wherefores are welcome as usual.

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