Special Minister of State John Faulkner today announced the abolition of conclusive certificates that can be used to block Freedom of Information requests, but the Government will take its time implementing its election commitments to reform information laws.

According to Faulkner, legislation abolishing conclusive certificates will be introduced in the Spring Sittings of Parliament later this year. Conclusive certificates enable ministers to prevent the release of other otherwise FOI-able documents if the Minister is satisfied the disclosure is contrary to the public interest. The High Court in 2006 established a very broad test for judging whether release is contrary to the public interest. The certificates have been used by both sides of politics to block the release of potentially embarrassing material.

However, legislation to implement Labor’s other election commitments to reform FOI laws will only be released in exposure draft form this year for consultation. It will not be introduced until 2009.

In addition to abolishing conclusive certificates, Labor’s FOI commitments included bringing together the functions of privacy protection and freedom of information in an FOI Commissioner, while preserving the existing role of the Privacy Commissioner to protect individual privacy. However, the exposure draft will go beyond establishing the FOI Commissioner and streamlining the Act to incorporate a fundamental review of the operation of the Act.

However, even with significant changes to the FOI Act, there’ll be no “culture of disclosure” without significant changes in the approach public servants take to the concept of freedom of information. Within the Public Service, FOI laws are regarded as a nuisance and a distraction from real work, and any opportunity to knock back requests is seized upon – and this is before the political interests of Ministers are taken into consideration.

There’ll only be real reform when Ministers, from the top down, make it clear to the Public Service that disclosure is favoured over non-disclosure, that public servants should facilitate the release of non-exempt documents where possible, and that devoting often substantial resources to fulfilling FOI requests is legitimate and appropriate.

From the media’s perspective, this is all about governments and public servants clutching tight to embarrassing and important information that the public has the right to know. Having worked the other side, however, it should also be borne in mind that a large number of media FOI requests are either deliberate fishing expeditions or are vague, ill-informed, and demonstrate no grasp of what actually happens inside the Public Service.

Fulfilling them, or even taking them seriously, can be immensely burdensome for time-pressed bureaucrats. If there’s one reform that would make life easier for everyone, it would be a process that allows bureaucrats and FOI applicants to have a dialogue that can narrow requests to what they really want, saving everyone time and money.