Freedom of Information Reform - Why Are We Waiting?

The Upper House of State Parliament voted last night to support Greens’ amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, but without Government support, the culture of secrecy that has plagued South Australia for years, is set to continue, according to Greens MLC, Mark Parnell.

“Effective Freedom of Information laws are essential to hold the government of the day and local councils to account. They allow members of the public to get behind the spin and see documents that show what’s really going on. The task before Parliament is to close the loopholes, stop political interference and get back to the original purpose of these laws which is to facilitate access to documents and only deny access in a narrow set of circumstances”, said Mark Parnell.

Despite having previously supported these reforms, the Liberal Government opposed the Bill because they want to wait for a comprehensive review of the Act to be undertaken later this year.

“The Greens also support a complete overhaul of FoI laws, but these simple amendments were “low-hanging fruit” and “no regrets” options that would help improve the system immediately. It is disappointing that nearly 5 years after the Ombudsman recommended these changes, there is still no change to the law,” said Mark Parnell.

1. Back in 2014, the previous State Ombudsman, Richard Bingham, audited a number of government agencies and found that most did not comply properly with Freedom of Information laws and many were infected with a culture of political interference. Many agencies used dubious tactics to undermine the public’s right to know.

2. In Parliament, the Greens twice moved amendments to give effect to the Ombudsman’s recommendations (in 2014 and 2016). In 2016, these reforms were rejected by the then Labor Government, but supported by the Liberals.

3. The Bill supported by the Upper House last night was a trimmed-down version of the original and only included those parts that the present Ombudsman said were important to pass now, ahead of a more comprehensive review to be conducted by the Government later.

The three main reforms are:

• Clarifying what is in the “public interest”;
• Stopping political interference in dealing with applications; and
• Allowing challenges to claims that documents “don’t exist” or “can’t be found”.