Australian FOI Process Lacks Confidence Amid Delays

Australia Institute

New research reveals few Australians have confidence in Australia’s freedom of information (FOI) system, and delays in FOI processing are not in line with community expectations. Agencies and ministers are normally required to make a decision within 30 days, but three in 10 decisions are made late. There are also 957 reviews with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner that are over 12 months old, including 60 reviews four or more years old.

The new research by the Australia Institute’s Democracy & Accountability Program was released ahead of a legal challenge by former Senator Rex Patrick to the lengthy delays on freedom of information (FOI) request reviews by the Australian Information Commissioner. The Federal Court will hear Mr Patrick’s challenge beginning March 2o 2023. Mr Patrick has been indemnified against his costs in the case, in part by the Australia Institute.

Key Findings:

  • Agencies and ministers are meant to make a decision within 30 days of receiving a freedom of information request, however, extensions are available in some circumstances. Last year, 7,505 FOI requests (three in 10) were determined late
  • The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is swamped with review requests, with 957 reviews over 12 months old and 60 reviews four or more years old
  • Last year, in 2022, the FOI system cost $2,551 per FOI request determined, more than twice the $730 per FOI request determined in 2007, even after adjusting for inflation
  • The FOI backlog has skyrocketed from 3,313 requests in 2018 to 9,202 in 2022
  • When a Minister leaves office, their documents are often destroyed or otherwise no longer be accessible by FOI – even though the FOI request may have been made months or years earlie

New Australia Institute polling finds:

  • Only one in five Australians (21%) are very confident that Australia’s FOI system gives Australians access to all the government information they are entitled to. A further 29% are somewhat confident
  • Three in five Australians (62%) say 30 days should be the maximum anyone should have to wait before their FOI request is decided, however, last year 7,505 decisions (three in 10) were made outside of this deadline
  • Four in five Australians (79%) say three months should be the maximum anyone should have to wait before their FOI request is decided. Last year 4,824 FOI decisions (one in five) were made outside of this deadline

“The law says Australians have a right to access government information, but public servants and ministers have abused the system to delay and obfuscate, holding back information that is in the public interest,” said Bill Browne, Democracy & Accountability Program Director at the Australia Institute.

“It is unacceptable that so many FOI requests are late, and that the watchdog responsible is so poorly resourced that it cannot review all the questionable FOI decisions referred to it.

“Democracies depend on transparency, but Australia’s freedom of information systems are not giving the public the information they are entitled to.

“Short-term reforms may strengthen FOI law, but ultimately we need a public inquiry into the culture of the public service and its subservience to the government of the day over the people it is meant to serve.”

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