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Reader riposte: Secrecy and FoI

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This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

COMMENTS

8 March 2012 11:51


This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Peter Timmins writes:

Numerous reports and inquiries have confirmed that we have a culture of secrecy in many areas of government. While there have been some positive reforms since 2009, we have a long way to go to move the culture along. As the Australian Law Reform Commission put it in its 2010 report on Secrecy Laws and Open Government in Australia (yet to receive any government response), '(o)fficial secrecy has a necessary and proper province in our system of government. A surfeit of secrecy does not.'

That report identified over 500 secrecy provisions in Commonwealth law — they add a chilling effect to a closed culture built around the premise that international affairs is the preserve of executive government. The blanket exemptions for the intelligence agencies from FOI is also telling, and not replicated in the US or even NZ.

FOI exemptions available to agencies covered by the act are broad to start with and have been given generous interpretation by the courts. In the international relations area they do not require any balancing of the public interest. It is probable that ministers and public servants game the system in a variety of ways — an abundance of caution in interpreting the law to start with, then delay, cost, decisions taken on the basis the applicant won't challenge, less than full searches, etc. There are no penalties.

The Government has been talking since 2007 about whistleblower protection legislation but is yet to deliver. I don't think there has been anything done in a serious way to look at National Archives and what isn't released into open records. Over-classification is largely unexplored territory, but unlike the US, classification on its own is not a ground for refusal of access under FoI. There has also been little research into parliamentary access to information and use of executive privilege to refuse to provide it.

Here are a few other links to relevant commentary you might find useful:

Feel free to use any of this as you wish. I'm glad to see an interest in the issue. Lowy should give consideration to a detailed study, perhaps a comparative look at the US and Australia.

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