Ministers increasingly denying public access to information

If the royal commissions into aged care and banking have taught us anything it is that openness and transparency are important pillars of our democracy.

However, the idea of shining a light in dark places has always been anathema to governments in Australia, but the situation is getting much worse, according to a report released on Thursday.

A two-year review by advocacy group the Grata Fund has found that the federal government is routinely rejecting freedom of information (FOI) requests from journalists and the public on spurious and potentially unlawful grounds, with claims the system is “broken”.

Last year, almost three-quarters of all FOI requests submitted to the federal government that were not merely requests for personal information were fully or partially rejected.

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Australia’s FOI system is an essential tool in keeping the government accountable to the public it is meant to serve.

The Grata Fund, an organisation that supports people and communities to bring public interest challenges, has released its litigation hit list of the worst excuses used by ministers and government agencies to reject FOI requests.

Grata Fund executive director Isabelle Reinecke has written to attorney-general Michaelia Cash notifying her that the widespread use of FOI exemptions was potentially unlawful.

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“Ministers keep trotting out the same old excuses to limit access to information that should be public,” Ms Reinecke explained. “We believe that the reasons for refusal provided by ministers and government departments are unlawful, and should be tested in court.

“This abuse of FOI law means that vulnerable communities are unable to interrogate policies or decisions that affect them, and the government is less accountable to the people.

“Ministers and agencies who breach FOI law to the detriment of our most vulnerable communities should consider themselves on notice.”

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The report identifies four areas where the handling of FOI requests would “most likely be found unlawful”.

These include requests refused inappropriately on the basis of cabinet confidentiality, those refused because of a change or resignation of a minister and unreasonable delays by the Office of the Information Commissioner.

Ms Reinecke said that the government’s recent cabinet reshuffle exposed serious problems with the system, with many FOI requests being denied on the basis that the files “cease to exist”.

“How is it possible that when a minister changes portfolios the documents created throughout their time suddenly, poof, disappear?” she asked.

The Grata Fund has called for some of these FOI failings to be tested in the courts or the Administrative Appeal Tribunal (AAT) to try to hold government agencies accountable.

“Clarification of these provisions of the FOI Act, through the AAT or Federal Court, would create enforceable obligations on government bodies to apply the exemptions consistently with the court’s or tribunal’s rulings,” the report explains.

Recently independent senator Rex Patrick won a huge FOI case, which will force the government to release a trove of national cabinet records after the AAT found Prime Minister Scott Morrison had no grounds to extend cabinet confidentiality to his meetings with state premiers and chief ministers.

The government, though, is expected to appeal that decision.

Do you think the government tries to hide too much information from the public? Should all decisions and information be available to the public? What information do you think needs to be kept secret? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Ben