Freedom of Information Act (Australia)

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The Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act of 1982 is aimed at extending "as far as possible, the Australian community's right of access to information in the possession of the Commonwealth."

The Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department is the agency with overall responsibility for the legislation while its implementation is implemented by each government agency.

The Act applies to the documents held by the majority of Commonwealth agencies. Australian State and Territories have also enacted Freedom of Information legislation that applies both to state and local government agencies.

Preventing Embarrassing Information Becoming Public

Guidelines issued by the Australian government's Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in October 2005 advised public servants on how to avoid personal notebook comments being disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act. "As some comments included in notebooks may have the potential to cause embarrassment or could be misinterpreted if taken out of context, you should transcribe the information that needs to be recorded into a file note, record of conversation or minute, and ensure it is placed on the appropriate departmental file. You can then destroy the original notes," the guideline says. [1]

In 2002 a Senate Committee of Inquiry investigating fabricated claims against a group of refugees perpetuated by a government taskforce complained that a failure to keep proper records rendered "the activities of the Taskforce largely inaccessible to subsequent scrutiny." [2]

The following month, the Australian Treasurer and Prime Ministerial aspirant, Peter Costello, claimed that the provision of documents under FOI laws might inhibit the quality of government advice. He then misleadingly claimed that the original intent was that FOI laws would be primarily directed towards information that government held on individuals. "The Freedom of Information Laws as originally conceived were particularly to allow citizens to know what the Government knew about them and that is their use and to allow citizens to correct information that the Government has wrongly held about them. I would not want to see practices growing up under those laws which would inhibit policy making or would lead to a disinclination in relation to working documents and policy development to document in writing the pros and cons of particular proposals," he said.

Australia's government ombudsman has found that the Australian FOI Act "works well in facilitating public access to personal information but not so well in providing access to policy-related information." [3]

The Need for Reform

Rick Snell, the editor of the Freedom of Information Review and lecturer in law at the University of Tasmania, has welcomed reforms proposed by the Victorian government for its freedom of information (FOI) laws. In August 2007 the new Victorian Premier, John Brumby, promised to introduce legislation "to ensure that, except in national security cases, only real Cabinet documents will be exempt from FoI." Snell believes the changes should be adopted elsewhere in Australia. "I have just returned from Cambodia, where they are considering introducing an FOI regime that is more liberal than all Australian FOI laws," he said. [1]

Reports On The Operation of FOI Legislation

Contact information

Web: http://www.ag.gov.au/foi

Websites tracking FOI reforms

Other SourceWatch Resources

References

  1. Chris Merritt, "Reforms needed to restrictive FOI regime", The Australian, August 11, 2007.

External links