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Joint letter to Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus urging freedom of information reform

Dear Attorney-General,

Freedom of information reform is long overdue.

We write to urge the Government to act on the recommendations made in the recent report of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee’s inquiry into the operation of the Commonwealth Freedom of Information (‘FOI’) laws.

As you will be aware, the Committee unanimously acknowledged the need for urgent reform to the FOI system. The Committee’s report describes a highly dysfunctional, under-resourced FOI regime, citing multi-year delays, excessive use of exemptions, problematic interpretations of FOI laws, prohibitive expenses, and cultural issues within the Australian Public Service (‘APS’) and at the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (‘OAIC’).

While in opposition, Labor rightly decried a culture of secrecy and impunity that thrived under the Morrison Government. Now in government, your department has taken positive steps toward remedying this, including establishing the National Anti-Corruption Commission and introducing legislation to establish the new Administrative Review Tribunal.

While we welcome these reforms, we note that the Albanese Government has continued to under-resource and under-prioritise the reform of FOI— a core transparency function, vital for restoring integrity and public trust in government.

The recommendations contained in the Senate Committee’s report represent a comprehensive, actionable blueprint for reform, and an opportunity for the Albanese Government to demonstrate its election commitment to open government and a strong democracy.

We urge the Government to act, in this term, to implement the Committee’s recommendations, with a particular focus on:

Increasing resources for FOI administration and oversight with an overdue injection of funding into the FOI functions of the APS and OAIC.

Legislating reforms to the Freedom of Information Act 1982, to remove internal agency reviews and introduce statutory timeframes for finalisation of FOI reviews.

Amending the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to ensure that a change in minister does not impede the right to access documents under the FOI system

Conducting an independent investigation of the troubling complaints about workplace culture and leadership at the OAIC.

The FOI system is crucial to ensuring government remains transparent and accountable. It enhances public participation in representative democracy and leads to better quality decision-making through increased scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of government activities.

We are deeply concerned by the dissenting inquiry report released by the Government members of the Committee, which expressed support for Australians’ right to obtain information through FOI laws but failed to meaningfully engage with the delays, cultural issues and under-resourcing within the system. Without taking further steps, the Government’s support of the public’s right to access information is hollow.

Our organisations, representing broad interests and experiences across the community, therefore call on the Government to uphold its commitment to accountability and transparency and urgently fix the deeply broken FOI system.

Together, we urge you to publicly clarify the Government’s position on FOI following the Senate Committee’s report, and share your intended plans for reform to resolve pressing issues undermining the FOI function, which are now beyond dispute.

 

Signatories:

Accountability Round Table

Australian Conservation Foundation

Australian Democracy Network

Centre for Public Integrity

Community Legal Centres Australia

Grata Fund

Lauren Gray

Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance

NSW Council for Civil Liberties

OpenAustralia Foundation

Peter Timmins

Professor Peter Tregear OAM

Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC)

Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS)

Rex Patrick

Transparency International Australia