The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has refused a Freedom of Information request from Shadow Minister for Public Accountability Kelvin Thomson for documents relating to the wheat for weapons scandal.

Thomson asked for documents relating to Ministerial and Departmental dealings with AWB concerning exports to Iraq and papers relating to AWB’s delegations to the UN Headquarters in New York, including communications between the Australian Mission to the UN in New York and DFAT Canberra concerning the UN Oil for Food program.

Both applications were rejected on the basis that the effort to gather, photocopy and post these documents would be too burdensome for the Department. “In accordance with Section 24(1) (a) of the Act I hereby refuse your request as I am satisfied that your request would substantially and unreasonably divert the resources of the Department from its other operations,” DFAT’s FOI Officer told Thomson.

Fair or unfair? FOI requests should always be as specific in their terms as possible. Agencies interpret vague requests in a manner that suits them best. “Fishing expedition” requests can easily be knocked back on Section 24 grounds.

Thomson’s request was broad but not unreasonable, as DFAT must be very familiar with the documents involved. Indeed, the Government has frequently claimed that they have all already been given to the Cole Inquiry.

To make it easier, Thomson reapplied for the material – excluding the documents provided to Cole and the Volcker inquiry. That was also knocked back on exactly the same grounds. The fact remains – Thomson’s request was broad but not unreasonable. And there are two questions left hanging.

Were there really so many documents that it would be too expensive to provide a shadow minister – or were some were so deeply buried that it would be too hard to locate them all, as required under the FOI Act?

Has the Government unreasonably diverted departmental resources to provide the Cole Inquiry with everything – or is the thoroughness required by the Freedom of Information Act a bigger task than the obligation to provide material to the Cole Inquiry?

First we were told that the Ministers didn’t know about the details of the wheat for weapons scandal. Now we learn that DFAT is too busy to chase them up. Not a good look.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey