A review has found Australia’s “broken” Freedom of Information system is allowing the Federal Government to “unlawfully” block requests. 

A functioning Freedom of Information (FOI) system is central to government accountability. 

However, the current Coalition federal government has been degrading Australia’s FOI system over the course of several years, leading to increased delays and complaints, heavy use of redactions, and requests being refused at a greater rate by government agencies.

Government bodies granted just 26 per cent of FOIS for non-personal information in full in 2019-20, while 34 per cent were granted in part and 41 per cent were refused.

About 10 per cent of FOIs were decided more than 90 days late - a five-fold increase from the previous year. 

In fact, delays have worsened each year for the past three years, with just 79 per cent of requests even being processed within the 30-day statutory time.

Secrecy is now at its highest ever level. 

The Grata Fund, an organisation that supports public interest litigation, has this week released the results of a two-year review, which found that “despite its importance, Australia’s FOI system is broken”.

The report says there is an “overarching cultural problem” that actively resists disclosure.

It warns that the overuse of exemptions to block the release of information is “often unlawful”, and lays out plans for strategic litigation to test these issues before the federal court or administrative appeals tribunal.

The review found FOI request responses would “most likely be found unlawful” due to the inappropriate use of cabinet confidentiality, and the unreasonable refusal of FOIs seeking text, Whatsapp, Signal or other electronic messages.

The report also slams the practice of ruling that documents in a minister’s office “cease to exist” when the minister switches roles. 

It is further critical of exemptions that withhold records containing personal information, law enforcement, commercial information, “certain operations of agencies” or deliberative processes.

“Clarification of these provisions of the FOI Act, through the AAT or Federal Court, would create enforceable obligations on government bodies to apply the exemptions consistently with the Court’s or Tribunal’s rulings,” the report says.

The report warns that an under-resourced Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is also contributing to significant delays in reviews of government FOI decisions.

Grata Fund’s head of strategic litigation, Lou Dargan, says the delays are discouraging applicants from pursuing requests.

“We’ve been hearing from partner organisations who use the FoI system all the time that it can take up to two years for an officer to be appointed to even look at your case,” she told reporters this week.

“It’s really hard to see all of these efforts by various government agencies at various times, and ministers’ offices, to delay the release of information as anything other than gaming the system.”