Former Victorian premier John Cain has condemned “political apparatchiks” for “trashing” freedom of information laws, one of the major reforms of his term in office.

Cain, who introduced the laws in Victoria in 1982, says the politicisation of FOI and the “lack of political will to fix it” is leading to the “long-term deterioration” of the legislation.

Speaking at Swinburne University this morning, Cain claimed: “FOI in Victoria has, at best, been allowed to wilt. At worst the independence and objective approach entrenched in the 1982 act has been trashed.”

He attributes the decline to the “rigorous political oversight” of the legislation by senior political advisers, including those in private ministerial offices. He also accuses some senior public servants of hanging on to information for too long.

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“They hoard the stuff like a bear in a cave,” he said. “Basic clerks and office staff — the foot soldiers — are trained to handle [FOI] requests, but it’s being abused by those up the chain.”

The former premier quoted at length from a “ferociously trenchant” Victorian Auditor-General’s report into FOI, which was tabled in the state parliament last week. It said:

“Since FOI was introduced 30 years ago, Victoria has gone from being at the forefront of FOI law and administration to one of the least progressive jurisdictions in Australia. Over time apathy and resistance to scrutiny have adversely affected the operation of the act, restricting the amount of information being released.”

“How strong is that?” Cain asked. “You won’t read anything stronger than that anywhere in the world … Independent bodies don’t say things like this lightly.”

Recent Labor governments in NSW and Queensland, as well as the current Commonwealth Labor government, have all introduced sweeping reforms to FOI in the past three years, meaning that Victoria has slipped well behind best practice. Cain is pessimistic about the prospects of reform by the Baillieu government.

“What remedial action will be taken as a result of the report? None I suspect,” he said.

Cain called for a review of the Victorian act’s commercial-in-confidence exemptions, which protect governments from divulging information about subsidies to commercial organisations such as the grand prix. “These should be subject to more rigorous scrutiny,” he said.

However, he concluded the solution lies not in legislation or an inquiry but in a change of political will on the part of senior public servants and politicians: “What’s lacking is the political will.”

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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