Monday, November 07, 2005

Freedom of information in Australia

While we have reasons to be concerned about the implementation of our Official Information Act, spare a thought for the Australians. Like us, they have "open government" legislation - the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act 1982 - which covers pretty much the same ground as our OIA and has more or less the same reasons for refusing a request. However, there are some important differences:

  • The language of the Act is stilted much more towards refusal. New Zealand's OIA starts with a principle of availability - that "information shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it". The Australian law doesn't, and its clauses covering exemptions start from a position of refusal, with any "public interest" override coming last.
  • It costs AU$30 to make a request, plus additional charges for photocopying, document location, "decision-making and consultation time" (being told "no"), and any appeal. While the NZ OIA allows organisations to charge for requests, its unusual for them to do so unless the request would be extremely time-consuming - and appeals to the Ombudsmen are free.
  • An early court case effectively gutted the Australian act, resulting an an extremely narrow interpretation of "public interest" which effectively exempted entire classes of documents. The result is that information whose availability we take for granted in New Zealand - information on how much extra money the government is taking in through "bracket creep", for example - is secret.

The upshot is that Australia's FOI legislation is effectively a joke, not taken seriously by Ministers (who openly denounce the idea of public oversight), and where government still operates under a presumption of secrecy rather than openness. Which just goes to show the difference fees, interpretation, and a culture of openness can make...

(Thanks to Andrew E for emailing me the original story which got me looking at this...)


In a whole range of areas NZ is surging ahead of Australia. This risible FIO legislation in Australia, their appalling police state "anti-terrorism" laws, their barbaric treatment of refugees, all point to the fact our society and our democracy is more healthy and vigorous than theirs.

One thing repeated ad museum in NZ political debate is the supposed axiom that Australia has a more robust sense of its identity, is more confident, more republican and therefore is more a "nation" than us dark and angsty men alone on our windy and shaky isles.

But my most recent trip to Australia left me not so sure that this received wisdom is still the truth. It seems to me John Howard - an almost wholly negative politician - has dragged Australia back to a colonial outpost, only this time its the American rather than the British Empire that Australia apes and toadies to with an awful consumerist colonial cringe. What we mistake for confidence is just crass consumerist conformism and a crushing mono-cultural worldview.

I am happy to live in our robust little democracy - in so many ways we are the freest in the English-speaking world nowadays.

Posted by Anonymous : 11/07/2005 04:35:00 PM