Yesterday, the Victorian Government made the long-awaited appointment of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Commissioner.
The EDO welcomes the appointment of the Commissioner. The FOI system is in serious need of reform, and we congratulate the government for taking an important first step towards much needed change.
FOI is an important issue. The ability of people to obtain access to government documents is essential in holding the government accountable for the decisions it makes.
The EDO has extensive experience with the FOI system, in attempting to get access to documents for our clients about government decisions and actions that have a significant impact on the environment. Our experience with Victoria’s FOI system has been overwhelmingly negative. Examples of some of our experiences include:
- Almost none of the applications we have lodged in the last 12 months have been responded to within the 45 day limit, which is the legally required time limit.
- We were advised by one government agency that the documents we sought did not exist. The EDO complained to the Ombudsman, and the documents were later found.
- A government agency initially advised us that only one document came within the scope of our FOI request. Following lengthy VCAT proceedings, a further 1500 pages of documents within the scope of our request were found.
- In every single matter the EDO has become involved in, the client has received more documents than what they were originally granted. This shows that government agencies are initially reticent to give the public all documents within their request, and that often they only consider seriously what documents ought to be released to the public following the threat of, or actual, legal challenge.
These experiences are not unique to the EDO. The Victorian Auditor General’s Office found that the FOI system was characterised by systematic underperformance and non-compliance of Victorian government agencies with their responsibilities under the FOI Act.
The Commissioner’s roles include dealing with applications for review of agencies’ decisions and dealing with complaints about how agencies handle FOI requests. The Commissioner also has the power to make recommendations for amendments to the FOI Act to the Government. We hope that the Commissioner will oversee a transformation to a more responsive, efficient FOI system in which government agencies take their obligations under the FOI Act seriously. This is a big job. Achieving the needed changes to the broken FOI system will require significant resources and ongoing government support.