Australia’s Freedom of Information (FOI) system is broken. At the federal level, government bodies routinely reject FOI requests from journalists, civil society organisations and the public on spurious grounds. Instead of making it easy for people to find out what is going on, Government agencies appear to be trying to keep secret as much information as possible.
All of this means that vulnerable communities are unable to interrogate policies or decisions that affect them and the Government is less accountable to the people.
The FOI system helps us hold the Government to account
In 2019 horrifying experiences of vulnerable children locked in police watch houses were exposed through freedom of information requests. What was exposed to the public was harrowing. A child’s finger was severed. A boy was kept naked inside a cell for days. Other children were kept in isolation for weeks. One First Nations boy with the cognitive functioning of only a 6-year-old was locked in a police cell for days.
All of this abuse was kept secret and could have continued on undiscovered if it weren't for FOI laws and the journalists and advocates who used them.
When Four Corners and Amnesty International publicly exposed the human rights abuses occurring against children in Queensland police watch houses last year, enough public pressure was mounted to force change. Within weeks the Queensland Government launched an investigation, created a new youth justice department and removed all kids from the watch houses.
But exposing misconduct is embarrassing, and the Australian Government is increasingly applying aggressive strategies to dodge its obligations under the FOI system and keep its secrets hidden from public view.
Did you know that the Australian Government now routinely refuses access to all Ministerial documents, if the Minister has been moved on from their portfolio? A sneaky way to avoid scrutiny.
Or that just this year the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Australian Federal Police and the Department of Human Service (who run Centrelink and Medicare) were found to have broken FOI laws?
The longer FOI laws are dodged, the longer our right to know is trampled on. This is an insidious attack on democracy that we urgently need to stop.
It’s not only child abuse in police watch houses that is at stake. In aged care, thousands of complaints are made each year about abuse, neglect and the use of chemical restraints. But the Commonwealth Government has refused to provide any information about the facilities implicated, to protect the ‘privacy’ of the private aged care homeowners. Earlier this year, the ABC revealed that the Government’s aged care regulator spent almost $30,000 on legal advice to respond to an FOI application from journalists about Covid-19 in aged care facilities. The amount spent on this legal advice could pay for a mid-level home-care package.
The misuse of our FOI system is getting worse. Recently, the Government has made conversations with State Governments that were once accessible through FOI, secret, by establishing a ‘National Cabinet’ to replace the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). This is enabling the Government to hide proposals put forward by advisors from the fossil fuel industry, with dire consequences for our right to know who and what is influencing the Government’s decisions about a post-Covid economic recovery.
If we can force the FOI system open and to operate according to the law we can provide a valuable tool to journalists, civil society investigators, campaigners and communities. They can then expose abuses, corruption and wrongdoing, and protect people from harm whilst improving our democracy.
Our plan has been developed following wide consultation with journalists, civil society investigators and academics. We have pinpointed the strategic interventions needed and developed a multifaceted plan to make the FOI system work for all of us.
With your support, we will operationalise our FOI Project plan to:
1. LITIGATE TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM
Release a litigation ‘hit list’ that will target the dodgy use of exemptions by Ministers and government departments. We will partner with civil society, academics and journalists to support litigation on this hit list. We will hold decision-makers accountable to the law, establish binding precedent in court and expose information that can stop human rights abuses, corruption, misuse of power and environmental destruction.
2. EXPOSE FOI ABUSE
Continue consultation with experts and investigators who work with the FOI system everyday to pinpoint the key issues and abuses of the system. Drive attention to the problem by bringing together leading experts from media, civil society and politics at public events and amplifying the tactics of governments and ministers who undermine and shirk responsibilities to FOI law and our right to know.
3. BUILD FOI CAPACITY
Partner with Monash Law School to deliver a law students clinic that will provide support to journalists and civil society on FOI practice, appeals and general education about the system.
When the FOI system works as intended, it is incredibly powerful. It can force accountability and lead to rapid change for people suffering human rights abuses, and expose environmental misconduct and corruption from our public officials.
If you have an FOI you think should be challenged and it's at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal stage of the review please get in touch via our case application page.
You can support the FOI Project by making a donation.