“Please be aware that the Department has seen a significant increase in the number of [freedom of information] requests received. As a result there are expected delays involved with the processing of FoI requests at the present time. Generally, requests will be processed in the order that they are received. The Department will endeavour to finalise your request as quickly as possible.”
This is the response people submitting freedom of information requests to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection currently receive as soon as they file their request, along with a request from the department’s FoI officers, asking the applicant to give them 60 days (instead of the usual 30) to respond to the request. Inadequate staffing means that thousands of FoI applications end up in a strange limbo, with information the public has the right to know locked down through the tyranny of bureaucracy.
The department recently reported that from the time Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took over the top job until the end of February, there had been 10,496 FoI requests received.
To their credit, the department finalised 6729 of these requests in the statutory timeframe (that is 30 days, plus whatever extensions they were able to get), but it received just over 2000 extensions on requests and finalised 3229 outside of the statutory timeframe.
A weird feature of the FoI Act is that requests not answered outside the statutory timeframe aren’t considered “overdue”; agencies can either continue to process them, or the person who made the request can consider it to be refused, and seek to appeal the decision.
A department not known for its transparency at the best of times is bound to receive substantial numbers of formal requests for information using the Freedom of Information Act, so not adequately staffing the department to meet the demand has led to a bottleneck within the agency.
If you want an insight into how delayed some requests can be, an FoI request filed to the department in October last year on the website Right To Know is still awaiting a response, six months later. Crikey is similarly waiting for a response to a request put to the department in November last year.
But it isn’t just the DIPB. In almost the same period, the Department of Finance had 63 FoI requests, but only managed to respond to 35 in the allocated time. Some other agencies are more efficient, however. The Department of Environment, which has had 42 FoIs in the same period, however, managed to get all of its responses delivered on time.
The Turnbull government has been under pressure to abandon plans to shut down the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner as former prime minister Tony Abbott had planned, but which he failed to get past the Senate. To this day, it still remains government policy, despite Australia moving to join the Open Government Partnership, a global initiative founded in 2011 to promote government accountability and transparency.
Submissions to the government’s consultation on the Open Government Partnership have noted the government’s poor ranking on the Centre for Law And Democracy’s global right-to-information ranking. Australia sits at 50 out of 102. Others have suggested Australia should set guidelines that make it clear that FoI requests should be processed as fast as possible, should public for FoI processing, and the OAIC should be re-funded.
Any push to improve FoI law for transparency in Australia is likely to face strong resistance from the public service. Several high-ranking public servants have gone on the record in opposing freedom of information law. If the recent comments by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson are anything to go by, any changes are likely to lead to less transparency, with Parkinson suggesting the FoI Act does not have enough exemptions to protect public servants to give frank and fearless advice.
Department of Industry, Innovation and Science secretary Glenys Beauchamp was also reported as saying that her job would be easier if she didn’t need to manage the risk of journalists using FoI requests to fish for stories.
The department responsible for innovation recently responded to a Crikey FoI request for emails by printing and mailing out the emails, rather than responding via email, as had been requested.
To mark Press Freedom Day today, the journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, has called on the government to protect the public’s right to know. CEO Paul Murphy said in a statement:
“Today, and in this election year, MEAA calls on Australia’s politicians to take positive action to promote and protect press freedom in Australia, to enable and encourage open and transparent government through freedom of information, and calls on the Government to thoroughly review the laws that criminalise journalism and suppress the public’s right to know.”