Information tied up despite FOI reform

Despite reforms to FOI, complaints and delays are still common. Sara Grajeda

Reforms to Freedom of Information law in 2010 have proved ineffective, with delays continuing and complaints rising.

The Department of Immigration, which receives more FOI requests than any other government department, is failing to handle 80% of FOI requests within the statutory 45 calendar day time frame, Information Commissioner John McMillan revealed this week.

In a report on the processing of non-routine FOI requests by the department, Professor McMillan found changes to the department’s handling of FOI requests were required, in addition to the recruitment of additional staff to help overcome unacceptable delays.

There had been high hopes that the Federal Government reforms of FOI in 2010 would change attitudes towards information ownership said Johan Lidberg, senior lecturer in journalism at Monash University.

“This report is yet again pointing to a culture where a department doesn’t really see it as important to be information access facilitators. It’s way down their list of priorities, which is clearly not in the spirit of the Act,” Dr Lidberg said.

In fact, getting interesting and sensitive documents today is much more difficult than the few years following the introduction of FOI said Bill Birnbauer, senior lecturer in journalism at Monash University, and one of the first reporters to use FOI when the legislation was introduced in 1982.

“The various Acts specify that requests should be dealt with within 30 or 45 days – in my experience that’s fantasy world stuff and farcical in practice – it generally does not happen except for council requests,” Mr Birnbauer said.

“My feeling is the whole process today is far more politicised, expensive, frustrating and that you almost have to be legally trained to know how to respond to knockbacks or request a review of a decision.”

Dr Lidberg said with no punitive tools or measures to wield, there was really no incentive for departments to follow the time frame requirements within the Act.

“If governments cannot comply with these times, they should increase the resources for processing FOI claims, but, of course, it suits their purposes not to do that,” Mr Birnbauer said.

Dr Lidberg said it would probably take a bill of rights in Australia to enshrine and make access to information easier.

He also said the government should drop all exemptions, such as those that apply to entire agencies.

“The fact that we have any exempt agencies at all sends the wrong signals.”

He pointed out that even the CIA was not exempt from FOI requests in the US, with important information emerging such as CIA interrogation manuals.

Dr Lidberg would also like to see fees dropped from FOI applications.

“I can’t see why the public and why citizens should pay to get access to information held on our behalf.”

Mr Birnbauer said FOI had always been a battle, but was a key to information that was otherwise not accessible unless someone blew a whistle.

“It’s a rusty old key, and the only one we’ve got, so all journalists – in fact everyone - should use it.”

Dr Lidberg said with FOI an internal tool reliant on government agencies, whistleblower platforms like WikiLeaks were critical.

“WikiLeaks and other mechanisms like that are really needed as a complement to FOI.”