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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

FOI commentaries: two for the money

Alison Sandy who found her FOI feet with the Courier Mail and is now Freedom of Information Editor at Seven News, compares our governments on the secrecy-transparency scale, well mainly FOI law and practice, and gives Queensland the gold star and South Australia the wooden spoon.

Experience rather than detailed research and analysis of all the variables here, but generally close to the money for mine.Tasmania and Western Australia don't get a mention. The former is in good FOI law territory while the latter should be marked down because it sat out the 2009-2010 reform era that elsewhere brought more pro-active disclosure and other positives for information access.

Paul Farrell in The Guardian is close to the money as well in asserting that the sound of closing doors in Canberra, with changes on the way, indicate a "new and deliberate assault is now being launched on one of the pillars of access to federal government information: the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. We risk losing one of our most valuable tools to help open governments." The string of published comments includes this from me on the Budget announcement that the Office of Australian Information Commissioner is to be abolished:
The changes proposed are a giant step backward. FOI was an orphan in government for close to 30 years without an independent champion and advocate, someone to nurture, safeguard,and promote the idea that the citizenry has a right to access government information. That gap was filled by the reforms of 2010 although the Commissioner was never properly empowered or resourced. Now the position is to be abolished. Review of a government decision not to disclose information in response to an FOI application, now available after an inordinate delay from the Information Commissioner will in future only be available by application to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. From 1 July the fee is $861, the process is unlikely to be speedy and you would be game venturing there without a lawyer because the government agency arguing against you will have a good, expensive one. In future advice and guidance on the interpretation of the legislation for government agencies, now with the Commissioner, will be in the hands of the Attorney General's Department. Talk about fox and hen house! The claim that these changes will improve transparency and accountability is laughable, not based on evidence, and runs counter to the trends around the world where independent office holders champion the cause and provide non litigious review of decisions. Finally whether the changes will produce the claimed savings of $10 million over four years is uncertain to say the least.That the public are the losers isn't I'm afraid.
Farrell notes the role played by the media coalition Australia's Right to Know in leading the 2007 campaign for FOI reform that bore fruit in 2010, suggesting now is the time for the coalition's long silence since to be broken. That's on the money as well.

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