Friday, March 27, 2009


During the 2007 election, the Australian Labor Party promised significant reform of that country's Freedom of Information Act. They've finally got round to releasing their specific proposals, and while its correct to say that it is the most far-reaching reform of freedom of information in Australia since the FOIA was passed in 1982, it seems very timid indeed from a New Zealand perspective. The full proposals (including both draft bills) are here, but here's how The Age described them:

Application fees will be scrapped, cabinet documents will be made available sooner and a pro-disclosure culture encouraged under a Rudd Government overhaul of Freedom of Information laws announced today.

Under the changes, announced by Cabinet Secretary and Special Minister of State John Faulkner in Sydney, all application fees will be abolished, and all charges for a person seeking access to their own information will be removed.

The first hour of decision-making time will be free for all FOI requests, and there will be a five-hour charge-free decision-making period for requests made by not-for-profit organisations and journalists.

Cabinet documents, which are currently kept secret for 30 years, will be available after 20 years, and the period for which cabinet notebooks are kept under wraps will be shortened from 50 to 30 years.

The fact that they charge for decision-making time - the time spent working out how to refuse a request - at all is an obscenity, no matter how much lipstick they stick on it. And while they're shortening the non-disclosure period for Cabinet documents, the fact that they have a blanket exemption at all undermines the entire Act. With a FOIA like this, you wonder how the Australians manage to hold their government to account at all (and the answer is "they don't").

There are some very welcome changes. Existing exemptions around business, research, the economy and confidential material are weakened and put on an NZ-style footing of presuming disclosure unless it would be contrary to the public interest (actually, we presume disclosure, and reasons to withhold may in turn be outweighed by the public interest). And it nails down some of the factors which need to be considered when judging where the public interest lies - and those which can not be. The latter include:

(a) access to the document could result in embarrassment to the Commonwealth Government, or cause a loss of confidence in the Commonwealth Government;

(b) access to the document could result in the applicant misinterpreting or misunderstanding the document;

(c) the author of the document was (or is) of high seniority in the agency to which the request for access to the document was made;

(d) access to the document could result in confusion or unnecessary debate.

"Unnecessary debate". What a lovely term. But the fact they're having to say this explicitly says a lot about the mindset of the Australian public service. Twenty-five years after the FOIA was passed, they're still hiding behind bureaucratic secrecy and terms like "unnecessary debate". It's practically British...