Australian Conservation Foundation analysis of freedom of information statistics reveals an increase in refused FOI requests, more redactions, higher charges and longer delays all plaguing Australia’s system of access to government documents.
ACF’s analysis found:
Refusal rates are rising, as is the use of exemptions to prevent information being released. Over five years, the percentage of FOI requests refused outright by agencies with an environment-relevant portfolio increased by nearly 50%. In the same period, the percentage of requests released in full nearly halved.
Delays are routine, with more than a third of the decisions on ACF’s requests not being made by statutory deadlines. More than a third of ACF’s requests were fulfilled late, with 60% late by a month or more and 39% overdue by more than two months.
Environmental agencies are among those charging the most for FOI requests. Between 2015 and 2020, the average amount charged per request for environmental portfolios was double the average cost for all requests across government.
- The federal Environment Minister refused outright 39 FOI requests in the last financial year, while only one was granted in full and three were granted in part.
- Government appears to be using lengthy review processes as a tool for denying access to information.
“Access to public information is central to ACF’s work of protecting the natural world against harmful or corrupt decisions,” said ACF’s democracy campaigner Jolene Elberth.
“There are fundamental flaws in the regime that is supposed to facilitate open and transparent government in Australia.
“This has serious ramifications for efforts to tackle the climate crisis and protect Australia’s unique wildlife and precious natural ecosystems.
“All parliamentarians and observers who care about the transparency of Australia’s democracy should be concerned by these figures.
“It’s time for Australian governments to lift the veil of secrecy from information and decisions we all have a stake in.”
ACF’s analysis drew from the following sources:
- Annual returns provided to the Office of the Information Commissioner (OAIC) by all agencies subject to the FOI Act.
- 109 freedom of information requests made by ACF between 2015 and 2020. These include requests made to Commonwealth, state/territory and local governments and agencies and ministers’ offices.
- FOI disclosure logs published by the Department for Agriculture, Water & the Environment; the Department of Industry, Science, Energy & Resources and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
- Information Commissioner review decisions database and OAIC annual reports.
Access denied: How Australia’s freedom of information regime is failing our environment