Keeping bastards honest: 246 foi cases in rex’s war on government secrecy

Senator Rex Patrick

Independent Senator Rex Patrick today pledged to keep up his Freedom of Information (FOI) war with the Federal Government regardless of who wins the election.

“Excessive secrecy has been one of the distinguishing features of the Coalition Government”, Senator Patrick said. “Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been obsessed with secrecy and allergic to scrutiny and accountability.”

“Consequently, Freedom of Information has been my key scrutiny tools as a Federal Senator. FOI is a vital weapon in the fight for better and more accountable government.”

“Over the past four and a half years I’ve been in the Freedom of Information trenches, pursuing no less than 246 FOI cases, including 24 matters determined by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and eight appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.”

“My FOI campaign has been an integral part my work as a Senator representing South Australia. It’s provided much information that has been of great value in Senate debates, Estimates hearings and other parliamentary inquiries.”

“My FOI battles have revealed numerous matters the Coalition Government and Federal bureaucrats would much rather have kept hidden.”

“Some of the FOI highlights include details of Murray-Darling Basin water rorts; secret Government plans to shift Collins class submarine maintenance from SA to WA; revelations of the Government’s gross mismanagement of the French Attack-class submarine project and other defence procurement scandals that have cost taxpayers billions of dollars; exposing the flawed site selection process for Australia’s national radioactive waste repository; and cracking open the secrecy surrounding Scott Morrison’s ‘National Cabinet’, including the revelation that the Federal Government was fully forewarned about the danger of last summer’s disastrous floods in Eastern Australia.”

“In addition, many FOI applications managed by myself and my office have helped individual SA constituents and their families deal with problems with the Federal Government, especially social security matters including the consequences of the Government’s shameful Robodebt scheme.”

Senator Patrick said: “I don’t expect the Prime Minister’s secrecy mania to change so I anticipate there will be many more FOI battles ahead if the Government is re-elected.”

“Moreover an anti-democratic culture of secrecy and obstruction is now deeply ingrained in the Federal bureaucracy with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet being one of the worst offenders.”

“Although the Labor Opposition has expressed in-principle support for reform of our FOI law, there’s no guarantee that with a new government there will be much change in the preparedness of ministers and bureaucrats to accept greater transparency and scrutiny.”

“Accordingly, if re-elected to the Senate, I’ll not only be pressing on with more FOI battles, but also with legislation to push for FOI reform.”

“The truth is our FOI system is broken. Although I’ve been able to win quite a few FOI fights, insurmountable obstacles are often placed in the way of many citizens, journalists and even large media organisations seeking government information that should be readily available.”

“All too often the default position of Ministers and bureaucrats is to delay FOI decisions, deny access, and then rely on an overwhelmed appeals process to ensure any information that is released comes many months, indeed years, after it would be useful to anyone.”

“Accordingly, I’ll be pressing ahead with legislation in the Senate that will:

  • Prevent the Government from claiming Cabinet secrecy exemptions in relation to bodies that are not part of the Federal Cabinet – specifically the so-called ‘National Cabinet’ and other intergovernmental bodies and meetings.
  • Require the government to fill all three offices of the Australian Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner and the Freedom of Information Commissioner. (The FOI Commissioner has been unfilled for most of the last Parliament with the government only recently moving to fill the position.)
  • Grant FOI applicants the right to switch a review into the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, without charge, in the event that the Information Commissioner takes, or indicates he or she will take, more than 120 days to make a decision.
  • Preventing agencies from making submissions to FOI decision reviews that have not been advanced by the agency in its internal decision making, so that they can’t switch exemptions halfway through a review as often happens now. This would prevent a current practice that, in effect, allows an agency to remake decision halfway through a review; something not normally permitted in merits reviews being run in superior jurisdictions.
  • Prevent the Information Commissioner from making FOI decisions if he or she does not hold the legal qualifications required of the FOI Commissioner.
  • Prevent agencies from publishing information released under FOI until at least 10 days after the applicant has received his or her copy of the information (thereby giving journalists and media organisations greater incentive to use FOI).
  • Require an agency to publish its external legal expenses for each Information Commission or AAT FOI matter that has concluded. This would apply in relation to agency FOI legal expenses and to expenses incurred by the National Archives in respect of applications made for access to information under the Archives Act 1983.

Senator Patrick said: “This comprehensive array of reforms reflects the practical experience of constituents, journalists, researchers and members of Parliament seeking information under FOI.”

“Freedom of Information reform is a key part of efforts to achieve greater transparency and democratic accountability in Australia’s government. It is essential if we are to fix our broken and dysfunctional political system.”

“I plan to continue my FOI campaign in the next Parliament. It’s vital to keeping the bastards honest.”

/Public Release.