The Napthine government’s pledge to reform freedom-of-information laws is in disarray, with its own FOI watchdog struggling to meet a litany of complaints against secretive state departments.
More than a year after the government set up Victoria’s first Freedom of Information Commissioner, figures confirm many people are waiting longer, political interference is still rife, and an ongoing culture of secrecy prevails.
Commissioner Lynne Bertolini was appointed to review FOI decisions by departments, investigate complaints, and educate the public service about the need for more transparency. But Fairfax Media can reveal that her office – which only has 12 full-time staff – is struggling to meet its 30-day deadline for reviews, and must repeatedly ask for extensions of time.
Within its first seven months, the commissioner requested 121 extensions of time for a review, compounding the backlog the Coalition had promised to ”fix”.
Labor MP John Lenders, for instance, waited 94 days for the commissioner to review a decision by the Department of Primary Industries, which had refused access to ministerial briefings on coal seam gas. In the end – after waiting 149 days – he was unable to get the information because the department’s decision was upheld.
Another Labor frontbencher, Jill Hennessy, waited almost two months for the Transport Department to finalise an FOI request about train and tram fare rises. After not getting the documents she wanted, she sought a review, but was told by the commissioner it would take a further three months.
Fairfax Media can also report:
- ? Cabinet ministers are still using private staff to decide if government information should be released – quite often they say no.
- ? Other users of FOI, such as the Greens, are bypassing the commissioner and heading straight to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to lodge appeals.
- ? Government departments and agencies received 33,546 FOI requests in 2012-13, with the commissioner completing 190 reviews, 81 complaints and dealing with 1050 inquiries in her first seven months.
The delays and secrecy are an embarrassment for the government, which came to office pledging greater transparency. Instead, it created a watchdog with no authority to review decisions by ministers or department heads, no power to release documents deemed ”cabinet-in-confidence” (a key reason to refuse access), and no clout to compel agencies to act on its recommendations.
Opposition scrutiny of government spokesman Martin Pakula said the commissioner had been ”set up to fail”. ”The FOI Commissioner’s office is so clearly under-resourced and so obviously lacking in power that it’s now part of the problem rather than any part of the solution,” he said.
But Attorney-General Robert Clark said the commissioner’s budget – $7.9 million over four years – ”represents substantial additional resources compared with the position under Labor, where reviews were usually undertaken by departmental officers as a side role on top of their main jobs”.
Ms Bertolini is currently on leave and her office declined to comment when asked if the agency was under-resourced, other than to say in a statement that the commissioner ”manages the resources available to this office as efficiently and effectively as possible”.
But others have called for sweeping reform. ”It is a very unsatisfactory process,” said University of Melbourne Law School associate professor Beth Gaze. ”We are getting towards ‘justice delayed, justice denied’. Information has a currency and if it can be delayed, it loses that currency.”
Farrah Tomazin and Henrietta Cook