The 17 year old Freedom of Information Act was conceived and based upon ideas about government information that stretch back to the 1960s. Furthermore the original design and intent of the legislation was heavily modified before being accepted by the major political parties. It was then trimmed further prior to its commencement in late 1992 by the Liberal Government. Throughout the 1990s it was starved of funds and just managed to survive an attempt at a massive reduction in its scope and operation in the mid 1990s. At other times it was targeted by secret plans to subject it to a sunset clause after 2 years.
The Bacon and Lennon governments have co-existed with the legislation but have never been overly supportive or keen to reinvigorate the legislation.
Due largely to staffing restrictions the various Tasmanian Ombudsman since the mid 1990s have taken a very low keyed approach to both the interpretation and application of the Act and in taking any wider supervisory or quality control activity.
This restricted approach seems to be slowly changing under the current Ombudsman, Simon Allston.
What is needed?
A 3 month (maximum review) by the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute and/or the Tasmanian Administrative Review Advisory Committee:
The review could build upon the work and ideas of:
Queensland Independent Review Panel
• Discussion Paper January 2008
• Final Report (early June 2008)
Australian Law Reform Commission
• 1996 Report and current review
NSW Ombudsman review (current)
Changes made in WA, Vic and the Northern Territory Information Act
Developments in New Zealand, Canada, UK and USA
Some initial proposals
Information Commissioner created (could be Ombudsman) to cover FOI, Privacy and state records.
Information Commissioner to have ability to release exempt information in the public interest.
Information Commissioner to have the ability to order release of information.
Information Commissioner to carry out supervisory, advisory and training functions.
Information Commissioner and Ombudsman to be approved by both Houses of Parliament.
Freedom of information to be funded and administered as any other policy program.
Time period for Information Commissioner reviews to remain at 30 days.
Maximum time limits on applications to be progressively decreased from 30 days to”:
• 20 days
• 15 days
• 10 days
A once-off request for extension up to a maximum of 15 days
Agencies be required to process 50% of requests within 50% of the maximum deadline.
Cabinet documents to be more accessible.
Automatic release of cabinet documents after 10 years unless covered by another exemption.
Internal working documents to be automatically released after 5 years.
All exemptions subject to a public interest test.
Information released under FOI be made publically available on Agency websites.
The government to republish FOI Handbook.
Information Commissioner tpo publish determinations of FOI reviews.
Limits on vexatious applications.
Changing Objects section to include increased openness and progressive release of information as a specific aim of the Act.
Parliamentary oversight of FOI including a “dedicated focus on information as a dimension of all government activity”. Creation of a joint Accountability Committee.
A shift to pro-active or push model of release so that there is routine and active dissemination of information.
Optional internal review.
Internal review timeframe reduced from 14 days to 7 days.
Decisions by gazetted FOI officers under s.21 shall not be subject to any Agency approval process unless that process has been approved by the joint Accountability Committee.
Most importantly a cultural change that sees government transparency made an essential modus operandi of government and that there is an attitude to harvest the dividends of transparency.