Rick Snell of the University of Tasmania has an interesting piece in the Sydney Morning Herald comparing the freedom of information regimes in Australia and New Zealand. I've blogged a little before about the differences in the two laws, but the key one is that New Zealand's OIA starts from a principle of availability, that "information shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it". By contrast, the Australian legislation has no similar overarching principle, and its clauses covering "exempt documents" start from a position of refusal, with a public interest override tacked on seemingly as an afterthought. Combined with an extremely narrow interpretation of "public interest" by the Australia courts, this has allowed a culture of bureaucratic secrecy to flourish, backed by arguments that government would cease to function if officials were forced to reveal draft policy documents, ministerial advice, basic statistics, or any of the information whose accessibility we take for granted here in New Zealand. Snell's point is of course that New Zealand provides a clear counterexample to that argument - the New Zealand government functions just fine under the enhanced level of public scrutiny that greater openness allows. Left unstated is the real point: that those making this argument and seeking to hide behind secrecy fear the greater accountability that comes with openness.
Australia desperately needs stronger federal freedom of information legislation, just as it needs stronger federal protection for human rights. But the political culture over there is so different that I don't see either of the major parties committing to either any time soon.
[Hat tip: Dean Knight]