Civil society open letter urges Attorney-General to fix broken Freedom of Information system

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Legal organisations, freedom of information (FOI) experts and media groups are urging Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to publicly clarify the Government’s position on FOI reform.

Following a damning Senate Committee report into the operation of Commonwealth FOI laws, an open letter from organisations and individuals including the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), Grata Fund, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), Transparency International Australia and former senator Rex Patrick has emphasised the urgent need for reform.

It highlights the Albanese Government’s support for increased transparency while in opposition, but notes that reform of the FOI system continues to be under-resourced and under-prioritised.

The signatories are calling on the Government to act in this parliamentary term to implement the recommendations of the Senate Committee Report, with a focus on:

  • increasing funding to the Australian Public Service to properly fulfil its FOI duties;
  • legal reforms to speed up processing of FOI requests: by setting mandatory timeframes, closing loopholes, and removing internal agency reviews; and
  • committing to an independent investigation of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner following troubling complaints about workplace culture.

Full text of the letter and list of signatories.

Comments attributable to PIAC Principal Solicitor, Jonathan Hall Spence:

‘The FOI system is convoluted and confusing. It prevents people from seeing information that agencies hold about them – information they are entitled to and that they need to understand their legal rights.’

‘PIAC represents people who have been handcuffed to go to medical appointments while they’re in immigration detention. Border Force says use of handcuffs is based on ‘risk’, but when our clients try to get information to understand how risk is assessed, the documents we receive are so heavily redacted they tell us nothing. Without that information, we don’t know if the handcuffing was done appropriately or lawfully.’

‘The Albanese Government came to power vowing to restore trust in government. It’s time they showed they are serious by committing to repair Australia’s dysfunctional FOI system.’

Comments attributable to Grata Fund Executive Director, Isabelle Reinecke:

‘The FOI system is so broken that Australians are regularly forced to take the government to court to get them to do the right thing. Some of the cases we and our partners are supporting right now are over documents with huge public interest value, yet were denied on dubious grounds – such as Justin Warren’s battle for Robodebt documents, and Rex Patrick’s fight for ‘sports rorts’ documents.’

‘It shouldn’t take a court case to access government information in the public interest. It’s our legal right, enshrined in the FOI Act. The Albanese Government must put urgent FOI reform on its integrity agenda.’

Comments attributable to Rex Patrick:

‘FOI is a transparency right granted to citizens by the parliament. But delays and dysfunctions are stripping us of this right. ‘

‘The objectives of the FOI Act are to increase public participation in Government processes and increase scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of the Government’s activities. That can’t be achieved if citizens won’t even enter the minefield that is the FOI regime. Neither can it be achieved with 3 to 4 years delay for those with the skills and tenacity to walk the minefield. By that time all you receive is historical documents, often of a past Government.’

‘It’s time the Albanese Government came good on its promise to restore integrity and fixed FOI.’

Comments attributable to MEAA Media Federal President, Karen Percy:

‘Media freedom is crucial to a functioning democracy, yet the operation of Australia’s freedom of information laws is preventing our members from reporting the facts and holding power to account.’

‘Our members tell us that the FOI regimes are costly, time consuming, and largely seen as unproductive. If documents are released they are so often subject to extreme levels of redaction. This is contrary to the public interest and undermines the public’s right to know.

‘The Albanese Government must act on its promises to reform the FOI system, so journalists can continue their important role in scrutinising the actions of governments, agencies and institutions.’

Comments attributable to Transparency International Australia CEO, Clancy Moore:

‘Our FOI system can feel like trying to navigate a maze blindfolded. The system is overly complex; it can take months if not years to move through and means that important government information and decisions are often hidden under a cloak of secrecy.

‘The government can clear the path by committing to the reform that is needed – removing loopholes, and resourcing the system effectively so that trust in FOI is restored.’

Media contact:
PIAC Media and Communications Manager, Dan Buhagiar: 0478 739 280


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