Submission to the Senate inquiry into Cmwth FOI Amendment Bill

The senate legal and constitutional affairs committee is currently considering the Abbot government Bill suggesting the closing of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner from January 1, 2015. You can read my full submission here.

This is my cover letter.

Re: Inquiry into the Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill 2014

I write this in response to the Senate inquiry into the above Bill.

I strongly endorse the sentiment of several of the published submissions, in particular the one by Associate Professor Moira Paterson. Abolishing the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner winds the clock back to 2007 before the reforms of the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act 1982. Most of the changes and good work increasing independent access to federal government held information would be lost. It is a major retrograde step.

Both A/Prof Paterson and I advised on the FOI reforms during 2008-2010. It was an exciting time as Australia was finally, at least in part, catching up with the access to information changes taking place globally. The 2010 amendments to the federal FOI Act and the establishment of the OAIC brought it significantly closer to international best practice on access to public sector information (PSI).

The establishment of the OAIC was the single most important reform. It finally brought together FOI and privacy (which, in my view, are two sides of the same coin) and gave the Commonwealth a real champion for FOI and made FOI appeals affordable. The OAIC is by no means perfect, but it was a good start and there is evidence (see article below) it had started to make inroads into its most important mission – changing the culture in Commonwealth departments and agencies from one of secrecy and obstruction of access to information to one of pro-active disclosure of information.

Abolishing the OAIC will undo most of this hard work and again make FOI more expensive and cumbersome to use from a user’s perspective. It will also wind back what in essence is a win-win situation. A well functioning FOI system is a trust building tool between the government and the public. By facilitating access to information a government demonstrates it trusts the citizens with the un-spun information they need to take part in the political process in a meaningful way. To juxtapose this with the savings claimed by the current government created by passing this Bill is cynical and in the long term democratically counter productive.

I have conducted internationally comparative research into FOI practical functionality for the last 13 years. In my experience this Bill harms not only the usability of federal FOI in Australia, but undermines the current federal government’s claims of being accountable and transparent.

I submit, below, to the Senate inquiry my latest research comparing a generation one FOI system, Victoria, with the reformed Commonwealth system. As pointed out below, international experience shows that abolishing bodies such as the OAIC will bring the functionality of federal FOI closer to the first generation FOI systems. This would bring Australia, yet again, out of step with international best practice on access to public sector information. This would truly be a pity.