OPINION: When Queensland Premier Campbell Newman announced back in 2012 that he would take Right to Information (Freedom of Information) decisions out of the hands of ministerial staff, I confess, I didn’t realise just how significant that was.
That was until I started making similar applications to Premiers in other states, namely Victoria.
I’ve made numerous applications to Premier Denis Napthine’s office and only in one instance was I provided a very small handful of documents – far fewer than expected and completely meaningless in the context of my application.
I applied for external review with the Victorian Freedom of Information Commissioner, Lynne Bertolini, but was advised she had no jurisdiction.
Her office can take a complaint, but can’t review the decision. The only way you can potentially get the decision overturned is to take it to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and fork out $380. It doesn’t cost anything for the FOI Commissioner to review decisions.
Basically under Victorian law, the FOI decisions made by the offices of the Premier and ministers are not subject to the same scrutiny as in other states. And if you want to fight them on their decisions, deep pockets are required.
The Victorian Freedom of Information Act, which was developed in 1982, is the oldest in the country.
Perhaps because of this, a secretive culture is evident in the attitudes of some of its FOI officers.
In one case, Dr Napthine’s legal counsel, who processes his office’s FOI applications, suggested I narrow the scope because my application threatened to capture hundreds of documents. So I did and oddly enough, the result was I then captured none.
When I complained that the advice I was provided was wrong and once he discovered that, he should have consulted once again with me, the decision-maker respectfully disagreed. It appears the aim is not to provide access to documents, but to block access to them.
When I asked Premier Napthine’s legal counsel for a copy of the Office of the Premier’s organisational structure, he said he would have to ask the chief-of-staff. I am yet to be provided with one.
Similarly, when I wanted to make a complaint to the officer who was in charge of the Department of Human Services Freedom of Information Unit due to their ongoing failure to comply with the Act and consult with me, I was told her name, but refused her email address, on the basis that it was “private”.
I said I wanted to address this person in her professional capacity, but was still denied that information.
Fortunately, where the DHS FOI unit was not open and transparent, the Internet was and I found her email address anyway.
The irony is not lost on me.
At 32 years-old, Victoria’s Freedom of Information Act needs review.
At the very least, Premier Napthine should take a leaf out of the book of his Queensland counterpart and acknowledge the need for Government and its leaders to be open and accountable by removing himself from the FOI process.
The only way Freedom of Information legislation can meet the objectives its existence is meant to ensure, is if the decision-makers are truly independent.
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