Thursday, 7 May 2015

In Abbott's Australia things are improving - citizens are getting told "No" faster

Since the Abbott Government came to power in September 2013 information from government departments has been somewhat more difficult to obtain.

Websites have been redesigned in such a way that data is often buried layers deep with no obvious links on the home page, telephone queries are often answered more guardedly than before and now it seems that Freedom of Information (FOI) requests are being answered within an acceptable time frame but with those answers more likely to be a Yes, but or an outright No to releasing information if the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) December 2014 report on the Department of Human Services is any indication.

The Information Commissioner noted in relation to the Dept. of Human Services that between 2011–12 and 2013–14 there was: a) an increase in the department’s use of the FOI Act practical refusal mechanism, from 33 occasions in 2011–12 to 777 in 2013–14;  b) a decline in the number of FOI requests to which access to documents was given in full, from 58% of requests in 2011–12 to 26% in 2013–14; and c) an increase in the number of applications for Information Commissioner (IC) review of the department’s access refusal decisions, from 49 IC review applications in 2011–12 to 95 in 2013–14.

So how do other federal government departments which handle ‘sensitive’ information rate when it comes to the ease with which publicly available information can be obtained regarding their response to FOI requests?

Well there does appear to have been some improvements in time between FOI request received and reply sent by other government departments in the same period covered by the OAIC report.


The Dept. of Immigration and Border Protection very cutely informs readers of its 2013-14 Annual Report of the high number of FOI requests it finalised in that financial year – but not the total number of these requests which resulted in a partial or complete refusal of requested data/information. The department’s disclosure logs give no indication as to whether documents supplied under FOI requests were redacted in the 2013 section, but do indicate which document releases were full/partial in the 2014 section of that financial year.

Given this department finalised 14,923 FOI requests in 2013-14, the relatively small number listed in the disclosure logs leads one to suspect that a great many requests were refused.

Of the 146 FOI requests which appear to have been finalised by the Dept. of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) in the 2013-14 financial year only 8 are listed as having been released as full or partially redacted documents and 3 are elsewhere listed as being rejected outright. The status of the remaining 135 FOI requests is uncertain.

In August 2014 this is what one released DPMC document looked like:

The content of which could not be more obscure.

The Australian Attorney-General’s Department website lists approximately 40 documents released under Freedom of Information in 2013-14 but there are no details published online and one must contact the department directly for information on these documents. The department’s annual report for that year does not list the number of FOI requests received or finalised.

According to its annual report the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) received 768 FOI requests in 2013-14 but only lists 9 finalised FOI requests for that period in its online disclosure log. The status of the remaining 759 is unknown. A number of the documents that were released are heavily redacted. 

Treasury displays 13 FOI requests on the departmental website for 2013-14. A number of documents are redacted and there is one refusal recorded. However, neither Treasury's website or annual report for that financial year state the number of FOI requests received or finalised in that year.

All in all, a suspicion forms that freedom of information is more honoured in concept than in fact by a government led by Tony Abbott, who before he became prime minister stated an alleged belief that; we should have a government which is transparent and open.

No comments: