Victoria’s bureaucrats frequently used the Freedom of Information Act as an “information protection system”, Ombudsman George Brouwer said in his 2011 annual report.

He expressed scepticism about the willingness of the bureaucracy to ever comply properly with the Act.

“Some departments have signalled their intention to implement systemic and structural reforms to improve service delivery in this area. Unfortunately, such intentions have lapsed in the past and I revisit and report on the same issues each year,” he said.

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He also revealed frustration at the bureaucracy’s failure to improve the quality of its FoI decision making, its delay in responding to requests, and its poor level of assistance to people making requests. All these faults had been drawn to the government’s attention in his review of the Act in 2006.

“Five years after that review, non-compliance with the Act persists,” he said.

Meanwhile some clear and unfortunate trends were emerging:

  • Complaints against local councils had increased 3.7% since the previous year;
  •  Many agencies were not complying with the Public Records Act by getting rid of records they were required to keep, and
  • Government departments in particular appeared intent on restricting access to information on what he called “misguided” grounds.

Brouwer included four case studies to illustrate his argument.

In one case, a journalist had asked the Department of Planning and Community Development for notes and reports from a meeting in June 2009 between then planning minister Justin Madden and the Halim Group about the controversial re-development of the Hotel Windsor.

The department claimed it could not find any relevant documents. However, the Ombudsman found several relevant documents, including handwritten notes taken at the meeting.

The department had claimed that these were only an aide memoire, but eventually conceded that they should have been put on the file.

In another case, two members of Parliament had made 13 requests to the police, responses to which had taken between three and 11 months.

The Ombudsman accused government departments and agencies of subverting the Act: “In my view, the object and purpose of the legislation is not being followed consistently … and this is undermining the effectiveness of the Act.”

*This is the final story in the joint Crikey/Swinburne University Baillieu Dump project — read previous reports

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Peter Fray
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