Secret FOI review is under fire

by Chris Griffith
Published 3 December 1995 in The Sunday Mail


my face


Community and political organisations yesterday challenged the State Government to allow the Queensland public to participate in its in-house review of the state's Freedom of Information Act.

In May, State Cabinet initiated a two-year review of the Act as required by law.

But instead of conducting it in public, Cabinet set up an Interdepartmental Committee coordinated from the Attorney-General's department to conduct a private review and report back by February.

The committee asked only government agencies and local government authorities to lodge submissions. The public was not invited to take part.

Yesterday 12 Queensland organisations said the public's exclusion was a contradiction in terms. They said it was wrong ordinary citizens were locked out of a review of law designed to empower ordinary citizens.

Most organisations also said the State Government should release submissions to the review -- including those written by government bureaucrats.

A spokesperson for Attorney-General Matt Foley said yesterday that the review was still in-house and that the government would not be taking any decisions on freedom of information until it had received the committee's report.

The organisations throwing their weight behind an open review were the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, the ACTU Queensland, the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the Queensland Press Gallery, the Caxton Legal Centre, the Australian Small Business Association, the Queensland Conservation Council, and the Journalism Department at the University of Queensland.

An open review was also supported by the non-Labor political parties -- the Coalition, the Australian Democrats, and the Queensland Greens.

Queensland Council for Civil Liberties president Ian Deardon yesterday said the FOI Act promised to be the nation's best, but now clearly was its worst.

He said the Act was useful for people wishing to access personal documents, but "next to useless" as an accountability measure.

Mr Deardon said the secrecy of submissions to a review about making information freely available was "a bad party joke".

"It appears this government has been taking lessons from Sir Humphrey Appleby," he said.

Criminal Lawyer Terry O'Gorman said Attorney-General Matt Foley, a former Civil Liberties Council president, was a keen advocate of open review processes when he chaired the Parliamentary Committee for Electoral and Administrative Review.

"If it was good enough then, it's good enough now."

Trades and Labor Council general secretary John Thompson said the review's findings would be questionable if it was conducted just within the government.

FAIRA general secretary Les Malezer said FOI law had been critical for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when researching land issues, the Welfare Fund, and when negotiating policy and practices with government.

Journalists' union Queensland president Cheryl Thurlow said the union was writing to Attorney-General Matt Foley to seek input into the review.

It is understood at least one journalist had recently lodged an FOI request for access to all the review's submissions.

Queensland Greens Convenor Angela Jones said it was hard to imagine any review making Queensland FOI law worse than it already was.

Shadow Attorney-General Denver Beanland said he favoured an open review, but believed any review was a waste of time, because the government had already made up its mind.

Australian Small Business Association national spokesman Jon Fowler said he was suspicious about the review being confidential.

"Once these things get nibbled away, the day comes when you realise its too late to do anything about it," he said.

In his annual report released last month, Information Commissioner Fred Albietz said the FOI Act was "in danger of dying a death of a thousand cuts" unless recent trends of excluding more and more documents and agencies from disclosure was reversed.

The committee conducting the review contains representatives from the Justice and Attorney-General's Department, the Office of Cabinet, Treasury, the Health Department, and local government.

The review has nine terms of reference. They include examining:

  • the effectiveness of internal and external freedom of information reviews;
  • whether the scale of fees and charges for accessing documents and for internal and external reviews "has been set at an appropriate level";
  • whether the exemption of some government agencies from providing documents under freedom of information "should be widened or narrowed".
Queensland's freedom of information laws dying "the death of a thousand cuts"
19 Nov 1992 Law first operates
19 May 1993/TD> Law extended to cover local government
12 Aug 1994/TD> Amended to include secrecy provisions from other Queensland laws
14 Sep 1994/TD> SOME documents held by Government owned corporations exempted from release
28 Oct 1994/TD> Registers of interests kept by local government authorities exempted from release
01 Dec 1994/TD> ALL documents held by Government owned corporations exempted from release
01 Dec 1994/TD> Secrecy provisions in state Whistleblower legislation are exempted from release
23 Mar 1995/TD> Documents that could be tabled at Cabinet or an Executive Council meeting are exempted from release
09 May 1995/TD> More government organisations exempted by regulation.