FOI failure: The tricks our pollies and bureaucrats use to keep Australians in the dark
Rex Patrick says he has been three years on some document requests. Photo: AAP
Australia’s government has major issues with transparency and is actively trying to keep citizens uninformed and unaware, a senator leading the charge against the culture of secrecy has said.
On Saturday, independent senator Rex Patrick slammed Australia’s Freedom of Information (FOI) process, and threatened to take the freedom of information commissioner to court over “unreasonable” delays in the review process.
Senator Patrick, a strong advocate for open government, has written to Australian information commissioner Angelene Falk, demanding she makes decisions on his FOI requests – some of which have been with her office for two years.
FOIs play an integral role in keeping the public informed of everything from how much taxpayer money is being spent to the efficiency of government services and what is really being considered behind closed doors by their elected representatives.
Such requests can be used to reveal information that politicians’ press offices will not freely release to journalists or members of the public – such as TND’s recent FOI request which revealed figures showing the Fair Work Ombudsman’s failure to combat exploitation on farms.
Senator Patrick’s letter has prompted advocates for transparency and those familiar with the pitfalls of the FOI process to reveal on the record the tricks the Australian government uses to hide information from the public.
The South Australian senator told The New Daily the FOI process has been designed to keep government secrets.
“If people are to engage in democracy they have to be informed,” he said.
“To be able to participate you need access to timely and up-to-date info.”
In the last year, FOIs filed by journalists and human rights organisations have revealed how Australia cooperated with Myanmar’s military junta, that $3 million of taxpayer money was invested in an Adani-owned company funding a crucial rail link, and racial profiling by police.
But there is much more Australian’s don’t know – which the FOI process is supposed to reveal.
Current issues, like how many Pfizer vaccines we have and where they are, or how the taxpayer-funded COVID-19 commission – which is stacked with individuals connected to the gas industry – is handling potential conflicts of interest.
“Officers black out the entire document and only reveal what they think is acceptable to release,” Senator Patrick said.
Acknowledging that governments should be able to keep some secrets – military and national security operations, for instance – and that the privacy of citizens should be protected, Senator Patrick said that the government is using these laws to look after itself.
“Everything the government does is done with the taxpayer’s coin. It should be made available,” he said.
“Often you will find there is a close correlation between secrecy and incompetence and corruption.
“That’s why you want to have access to information.”
‘All sorts of tricks’
Denis Muller is a senior research fellow at Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism and knows the FOI process better than most. He was a journalist for 27 years and FOI editor at The Age.
“The process has always been bad. It has never got any better,” Dr Muller said.
Over the years he picked up on the tricks certain departments use to hide information from the public.
One department put the important information on post-it notes, which then mysteriously got pulled off before they arrived.
“The public service plays all sorts of tricks,” Dr Muller said.
“Once they redacted every word except the conjunctions and definite articles.”
The other trick was to “starve you out” by taking months or even years to send through information, making it irrelevant by the time it finally arrives.
“It’s just nonsense,” Dr Muller said, adding that the implementation of FOI laws is a blunt tool against a deep-seated culture of secrecy.
“They don’t want us to know about their bungles and wastage of money and their stupid decisions,” Dr Muller said.
“They use FOI to cover up things. It is information we’re entitled to know.”