Bureaucratic secrecy under fire in Tas, SA

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday October 22, 2019

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Reluctant public servants and lack of trained Freedom of Information officers have been blamed for poor transparency in two states.

South Australian Ombud Wayne Lines has received 262 applications to review Freedom of Information requests in the past financial year, which is more than double the year before.

He has put it down to under-resourced government agencies, and ministers using claims of Cabinet exemptions to withhold information.

While South Australians can apply for access to Cabinet documents so long as they are more than 10 years old, information could be withheld in the name of personal privacy, national security, law enforcement and public safety. But Lines has said there should be more transparency.

“The government should consider the New Zealand approach of routinely releasing Cabinet documents 30 days after a decision unless a particular exemption applies,” he told The Advertiser.

“South Australia needs to modernise the FOI Act and establish an Information and Privacy Commissioner to champion, regulate and set statewide standards for access to information.”

He has argued that the state needs more staff within FOI units and better training for FOI officers. He has also supported an FOI Amendment Bill put forward by Greens MP Mark Parnell.

The state Liberal government has refused to let the bill pass through the Lower House, according to Parnell, despite having voted for it when they were in opposition. The bill has called for clarification of what is in the public interest, an end to political interference in the application process, and the allowance of challenges to claims that documents are missing or nonexistent.

Read more: SA ombud wants bureaucrats to let FOI officers do their job

A similar culture of secrecy has been impacting FOI in Tasmania, according to University of Tasmania associate law professor Rick Snell.

“There’s very few champions of Right to Information within the state public service,” he told the Mercury.

Tasmania’s FOI laws have not been used properly, specifically Section 12, Snell noted. Section 12 was introduced when the state’s FOI Act was replaced with the RTI Act in 2009. It was created to increase the amount of information being released, and classifies information to be released either as a required, routine, active, or assessed disclosure.

“The whole purpose of Section 12 was intended to be a ­device that progressively increased the amount of high-quality information that was in the public domain,” Snell said.

But he has argued that not enough information has been released under the routine and active disclosure categories, and has called on the Ombud’s Office to stop departments and agencies from consistently refusing to release information under “inadequate reason statements”.

Tasmanian Ombud Richard Connock has previously said that while the demand for extended training for RTI officers “remains high”, his workload has prevented him from offering it.

Both of the states’ attorney-generals have said they would improve transparency in their jurisdictions.

SA Attorney-General Vickie Chapman recently told The Advertiser she has completed a review of state FOI laws, and hopes to introduce the bill into parliament before the end of the year.

“It is important to get this right, and make sure any proposals can be properly accommodated by departments who undertake a huge amount of work to source and compile documents for FOI requests,” she said.

Tasmanian Attorney-General Elise Archer has said the state government is “committed to improving the openness, accountability and transparency of the operations of government in Tasmania”. They have provided $245,000 in additional funding to Connock’s office this year, which Archer has said would go towards a new principal officer who has already been recruited, and a new investigation and review officer yet to be appointed.

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