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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Head-scratchers in secrecy claims for documents 30 years old

From NAA website
The National Archives Authority released Cabinet papers for two years on 1 January, as part of the transition from the 30 to 20 years secrecy rule, comprising 800 of the papers considered and discussed by the Fraser and Hawke Cabinets in 1982 and 1983. The media coverage of what was released focuses, rightly, on some of the juicy bits. What wasn't released sparks interest here.

  While a relatively small amount of information in the overall scheme of things (and about the same proportion as last year), you have to wonder whether excessive secrecy rather than legitimate well based concern about the effect of disclosure is at work here.

The titles of three documents withheld in their entirety isn't disclosed and parts of 25 others have been redacted. The "reasons" given are simply assertions of a claim for exemption under the Archives Act 1983. The NAA shorthand descriptions of two exemptions (section 33(1)(b), 33(1)(c)) leave out important elements of the exemption provision itself.

Some redactions that prompt more than the usual amount of head-scratching, bearing in mind the documents are 29-30 years old, include
  • To protect Australia’s security, defence or international relations. Six documents relate to Antactica including "Australian policy objectives in Antarctica." Then there is  "Overview of Defence counter-terrorist capability", "Australian policy towards China" and "Future Australian interest in Christmas Island".
  • Withheld because release would have a substantial adverse effect on the financial or property interests of the Australian government or a government institution. "New policy proposals 1982-1983 - Treasury" (!!) (The exemption contains a public interest test- disclosure would not, on balance, be in the public interest.)
  • To protect information because its release would adversely impact on the business, commercial or financial affairs of a person, organisation or undertaking." Report of Mr A F Smith on the Office of the Deputy Crown Solicitor (DCS), Perth."  (!!!!!)


  1. FelineCyclist5:36 pm

    Is there a right of review or any sort of oversight of the decisions to withhold? Does the Ombudsman have jurisdiction?

    The FOI jurisdiction demonstrates the tendency of public servants to claim 'public interest' exemptions without close consideration of whether the public interest would actually be harmed. Statements of reasons are one tool to ensure transparency and rigour in decision-making. However, if there is no compulsion or incentive to provide detailed, transparent statements of reasons, then their impact on decision-making is negligible. Hence the question - who has the oversight to ensure that the statements of reasons meaningfully reflect decision-makers' decisions, such that the statements of reasons achieve the goal of enforcing rigour in decision-making?

  2. No the Ombudsman and the Information Commissioner don't have review powers. The NAA would need to give detailed reasons if you sought access and access was denied. You could the seek internal review and review in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal-at $777 a pop, with concessions in some circumstances. Researchers no doubt have plenty of stories to tell about access issues but applications for review by the AAT are rare.