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Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2012

The Freedom of Information Amendment Bill 2011 aimed to implement a “push” model of publication of information, with: • A requirement to publish on the internet documents provided under the FoI Act • The objects clause of the act to clearly state that government-held information is a public resource • The Bill to distinguish between exempt documents and conditionally exempt documents • A single public interest test to apply to conditionally exempt documents • Conclusive certificates issued prior to the 2009 abolition of most powers to issue such a certificate to be revoked.22

Western Australia In WA, the Office of the Information Commissioner received 15,716 requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act 1992 according to the OIC Annual Report 20102011.23 Of these, 14,134 decisions were made: 56.8 per cent granted in full, 32.3 per cent edited, 0.6 per cent deferred and 3 per cent refused. There were 226 requests for internal review, of which 169 decisions were confirmed and 42 decisions varied and six decisions reversed. A further five requests were withdrawn.

An unwelcome freedom rider Freedom of information requests are all too often subject to unwarranted delays, bureaucratic wrangling and nit-picking refusals, writes Michael McKinnon The reformed FoI Act announced three years ago was to have its own watchdog, the Commonwealth information commissioner. But Seven Network’s FoI editor Michael McKinnon has found the watchdog lacks both the ticker and the teeth for the job When Senator John Faulkner declared the new Freedom of Information (FoI) regime would “increase scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of the government’s activities” in May 2009, it seemed at long last the 1982 FoI Act would be strengthened to stop political secrecy against the public interest. A new FoI Act, largely based on successful Queensland reforms, would follow the abolition of the loathsome conclusive certificates that had allowed ministers to declare “in the public interest” that information should never be released. A News Limited-funded High Court appeal against certificates, McKinnon v Treasury, had failed but was credited as the catalyst for reform promised by Rudd’s federal opposition before its 2007 election victory. Optimism was reinforced with the appointment of the impeccably honest Senator Faulkner as the minister responsible for the reform. Along with a revamped act, the centrepiece of the reform was the new Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), which would ensure government agencies would no longer be able to hide the truth unfairly, delay its release or price information at astronomical costs. A key to the reforms was the view that agencies would proactively publish information, lessening the need for FoI requests. The plan was optimistic and naïve as departmental spin doctors don’t breathe without permission from the minister’s office, and no minister’s office will ever accept negative information going out. That’s why FoI is needed – because the politicians seeking re-election are the same people controlling the information needed by voters to judge performance. The recent auditor-general’s report on the fiasco surrounding the tender for Australia’s international news network shows how squalid political motives led to appalling failures in process by the Gillard government. Couple this with opposition leader Tony Abbott’s brazen declaration that he will take good politics before good policy any day, and it’s clear how little the national interest can matter to poll-driven career politicians. Effective FoI laws allow the public to find out the truth about public policy and a new OAIC was supposed to champion that aim. This has not happened. The OAIC is a struggling, if not failing. In an interview with The Age on April 9, the information commissioner, Professor John McMillan, warned that refusal to adequately fund oversight of Freedom of Information legislation was undermining the government’s declared commitment to increased transparency and more open government. The article further stated that: “the OAIC expects to receive as many as 700 FoI review applications in 2011–12. In February, the office had a backlog of more than 340 applications

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2012 Press Freedom Report  

The Annual Media Alliance summary of press freedom issues in Australia