Gillard’s impending FoI blunder

Raising the cost of FoI applications is not the answer. Flickr/chrisjohnbeckett

The Gillard government will make a huge mistake if it follows through with plans to overturn freedom of information reforms and introduce an increase to the cost of applications.

The expected change comes less than 18 months after legislation abolished the $30 application fee for freedom of information requests (FoI) and reduced other charges.

The recommendation to increase the charges again has been made in a recent report by the FoI Commissioner Professor John McMillan.

McMillan recommends that agencies double some FoI charges after the public “inundated” the government with requests. Government agencies had spent $36 million administering the act.

He argues that the government needs to be able to recoup this cost and to stamp out those applicants who are trivialising the process by making hundreds of requests.

But wasn’t the whole point of the FoI reforms to increase access to government information? Reversing these reforms now would be a mistake.

Why do we have FoI?

Gaining information in the public interest was the underlying reason for the reforms that came into effect on November 1, 2010 and even before that.

It was fundamental to the original idea of FoI first mooted by Gough Whitlam when he was Prime Minister in the early 1970s.

FoI in Australia has always been a problem. Grafting a FoI Act on to a Westminster system of Government is not an ideal situation, and the experiment was failing until the 2010 changes were introduced.

But now that it is “working” more or less as intended the Government wants to change it again.

Professor McMillan told The Sydney Morning Herald in an interview in October 2010 that the introduction of the reforms would “transform government”, because they created a new emphasis on “pro-disclosure.”

So far this has been the case. Much more information held by government agencies has been released. The changes made it easier for applicants to request information.

But by reinstating fees, the reverse will start to happen and FoI will return to its former self.

What are the alternatives?

So what can be done instead?

A great example of reforming FoI would be to look at the Queensland model.

Queensland’s FoI Act (known as the Right to Information Act) was reformed in July 2009 following a review by Dr. David Solomon that was ordered by former Premier Anna Bligh in September 2007.

The Queensland attitude toward FoI has always been a “push model” whereby government information is “pushed” out, rather than the public having to “pull” it out.

As a result of the Solomon review, which saw the Queensland Government support (in full or in part) 139 of the 141 recommendations, Queensland has become the most open and accountable government in Australia.

Leadership needed

As I stated in an article I wrote for the website Upstart, FoI requires strong leadership for change to work.

The attitude and culture of department heads and government ministers under the Bligh government was different – it embraced openness.

This does not seem to be the case at a Federal level – excuses are being created instead of looking at how best to manage the influx of FoI requests.

In saying that McMillan’s claim that certain groups are using FoI in a “regulatory battle with government” could well be true. In one example, an applicant made 700 requests to the Department of Climate Change in just five months.

There should be measures in place to deal with those that use FOI applications to cause trouble.

The example above would be the perfect candidate to be deemed a vexatious litigant.

But deeming people vexatious litigants also has its downside as it could wrongly place a legitimate requester in the wrong category – think the Seven Network’s FoI editor Michael McKinnon.

Far from perfect but…

FoI will never be perfect in Australia. It is a law that is fluid and needs to change with time and circumstance. Increasing fees will deter any slim chance it has of evolving into a law that works.

The Gillard Government needs to look at the three key questions underpinning this issue: what are we doing wrong when it comes to releasing information? How can we better inform the public through non-FoI means? And how can we change the culture and attitude of people in government toward FoI?

Increasing fees is not the answer to any of these.