The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI) was one of the many legal and administrative reforms brought in by the Cain state government. Prior to this, the government was not obliged to disclose information about its internal operations to the public. The Act represented a step towards greater transparency, with the objective of extending “as far as possible the right of the community to access to information in the possession of the Government of Victoria and [governmental agencies].”
It increased public scrutiny and debate over the oper-ations of government and other major public institutions. Recently, FOI legislation has been used to inquire into travel logs of members of parliament and government officials, such as Bronwyn Bishop and Tony Burke. The scandals generated by the revelations of extravagant travel expenses being charged to the taxpayer, such as Ms. Bishop’s helicop-ter ride, reveal how important the Act is in holding poli-ticians accountable. It helps to protect against corruption and the abuse of power in government agencies, by allowing ordinary people quick and reasonably low-cost access to information. Or rather, it should, were the Act adhered to as it were intended.
In 2012, the former premier John Cain slammed consecutive governments for manipulating the legislation to avoid releasing documents and dealing with public scrutiny. Public servants and bureaucrats are adept at disposing of problematic requests: such requests are usually for docu-ments that would reflect poorly on the agency, e.g. lists of donors to political parties, or the personal journal of George Brandis. The directive for a bureaucrat to reject a particular request can come from the highest positions of power, exec-utive councils and even ministers.
In 2010, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), an independent body to report on how the public sector collects, uses, and discloses informa-tion was established. It is also to serve as the watchdog for the administration of freedom of information and privacy requests. Despite hopes of ushering in an era of greater transparency and disclosure of information, the office has been much maligned since its inception, and chronic reports of inefficiency and understaffing culminated with the Coalition’s decision to scrap it in 2015. John McMillan, the first information commissioner, commented in an interview that politicians “hate” freedom of information laws.
He went further saying it’s “culturally acceptable, to thwart FOI requests” and that the tone was set from the top, by senior levels of government. Political interference in requests to protect an agency from damaging its reputation is common, and application of the Act has been eroded in serving the interests of government, to the point where the original wording seems almost laughable. The Act stipulates that it must “be exercised as far as possible, so as to facil-itate and promote, promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost, the disclosure of information.” Clearly this attitude is not in keeping with the spirit of the legislation, but how are requests actually defeated, and is it legal?
The short answer is yes, there are many ways the legislation can be manipulated or inappropriately applied to deny the request. In my own recent experience with Monash University, I have been on the receiving end of what I believe to be deliberate attempts to sink my request. In July 2015 my request for a file list from the senior executive database was knocked back for being unclear, unironically signed off by executive services. This meant was that the request could not proceed because it had not been deemed valid, and consequently could not be appealed. To remove any doubt about the clarity of my request, I conducted some research and discovered the name of the database used by several key administration units, TRIM Context. I amended my request to seek a file list directly from TRIM, which was then to be refused under section 25A(6) for being an unrea-sonable drain upon resources.
Sourcing the documents, from the executive services database with a print file list function, notifying me of a decision and actually printing the documents were part of what was considered too burdensome, despite all being the most basic requirements of the legislation. More research on the classification structure of the database allowed me to progress by narrowing the scope to only two fifths of the database, which was eventually accepted. In the only con-sultation I had with a member of executive services ,I was advised to drop the request because it would never succeed. No effort was made by the University to provide me the re-sources I might need, even though the Act obliges them to. From my experience, Monash too, it would appear, does not follow the freedom of information Act in good faith.