Proposed changes to Victoria’s FOI laws

The Victorian Government has realised an election promise to change Victoria’s Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.

The EDO has definitely had its share of frustrations with accessing information under the current FOI regime.  Most recently, we went to VCAT on behalf of Victorian National Parks Association to obtain access documents relating to the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s secretive alpine grazing trial.  We also wrote to the Attorney General in January this year with a list of 6 improvements that could be made to the FOI Act.

So are these new proposed changes really improvements?  The media have reported that they are not – see this article in The Age and this in The Herald Sun.

On the upside, the Government plans to introduce a new FOI Commissioner to conduct independent review of FOI decisions and receive complaints.  This is certainly a step in the right direction, bringing Victoria into line with other States, and is something we suggested to the Attorney-General in our letter earlier this year.

The devil is in the detail.  The Commissioner cannot review decisions of Ministers or Department Heads, or documents claimed to be cabinet in confidence documents.  The changes have the potential to drag out the FOI process even more: under the current act, an internal review of an FOI decision is due in 14 days, while the Commissioner’s review can take up to 30 days. 

The proposed changes are good in principal – the risk is that this change will be undermined by exceptions and extended deadlines.  We now depend on Parliament to get rid of these these problems before they become law.

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