Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Undermining Freedom of Information in Australia

Australia has a weak Freedom of Information regime, which for example allows information to be cloaked in secrecy merely by wheeling it into the Cabinet room on a tea trolley (and yes, they do actually do that). So naturally, the Australian government is trying to weaken it further, with a strapped-chicken review aimed at cutting costs by reducing transparency. But as Paul Farrell points out, this would be a blow for Australian democracy:

It’s true that FOI costs have increased, with the 2010/11 year costed at $36 million. The increase can be attributed largely to the number of non-personal requests being made, according to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) 2012 annual report. Non routine requests are often those made by journalists and politicians seeking access to documents in the public interest.

It’s ironic that the federal government is now concerned about an increase in costs brought about by encouraging open access to government information. In some respects, the FOI Act has succeeded in encouraging precisely the type of requests that are good for open government, and good for the public.

The expected change - higher fees, fees for reviews (!), an absolute cap on request time - would make the law even more ineffective, and hence make it more difficult for Australians to hold their government to account. And given Australia's persistent corruption problems, that would be a Very Bad Thing.