Why So Secretive?
By Matthew Landauer, Katherine SzuminskaJuly 4, 2013
The internet allows for greater public participation in government. But ours continues to show it is not ready to talk.
Making Freedom of Information requests has never been simpler. New tools make it easy to ask, and by law government agencies must respond. Delay and obstruction by agencies is commonplace. However when the crowd gets together and asks a lot of questions, it becomes increasingly hard to know how an agency might respond to this. At least in the case of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), they are doing anything they can to try to shut it down.
Australia’s immigration department is unlawfully obstructing over 100 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from the general public in an attempt to maintain secrecy.
People who work within the immigration department are collectively and knowingly gaming and abusing FOI law and procedures, avoiding public scrutiny and actively preventing the public from finding out what really goes on “behind the wire” in detention centres.
In fact, the only connection between these genuine requests, made by interested members of the public is that they are all about incidents that occurred in detention centres.
Lawyer and FOI consultant Peter Timmins considers the DIAC’s arguments weak at best.
There is circumstantial evidence that government agencies knowingly delay and obstruct FOI requests, to force them to be referred for external review by the under-resourced and over-burdened FOI ‘complaints department’, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. It may take months or even years for the commissioner’s office to review a decision, and even an overturned decision may still represent a success for an agency. That is, a long delay can, in many cases, render the information less valuable.
We at the OpenAustralia Foundation believe this is part of a strategy to deter journalists, whose requests are dealt with in a separate office by senior staff. But the crux of the matter is that it’s largely journalists, and specialist FOI journalists at that, who bother to make such requests, because the process has been made so difficult for ordinary people.
This is nothing new. In recent years the DIAC specifically has been criticised in several reports. In August 2012, an independent review of the Department of Immigration’s FOI procedures, conducted by former Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Robert Cornall AO, concluded:
The Department’s current level of performance in regard to freedom of information is unacceptable. DIAC is not complying with its legal obligations. It is in bad standing with the FOI regulator. Its FOI shortcomings damage the Department’s relationship with the Minister and his Office and reflect adversely on the Department’s reputation within the Australian Government.
What is new is that the full paper trails of correspondence between the requestors and the agency are now made publicly available through the Right To Know website. The Detention Logs project – a collaboration between independent journalists, The Global Mail, New Matilda, Guardian Australia, and the OpenAustralia Foundation – has created a platform that encourages ordinary people to take an interest in the workings of detention centres, and to “adopt” incidents. They can do so by requesting further information via an FOI request made on the Right To Know website. See this link for a request for one of these incident reports.
Back in 2010, Freedom of Information law was reformed, and Lindsay Tanner, then the finance minister, announced a “Declaration of Open Government”, in which he said the government was “establishing a pro-disclosure culture across Australian Government agencies”.
He added that, “The establishment of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the Government’s broader freedom of information reforms aim to restore trust and integrity in government and drive agencies to proactively release information to the public.”
These measures have yet to show any significant effect in moving towards a pro-disclosure culture across government.
We’d like the immigration department to turn this around and show that it is mature enough to act in a pro-disclosure environment. How? It’s embarrassingly simple. Instead of blocking citizens’ access to detailed incident reports, the immigration department can proactively release them. Instead of forcing members of the public to use heavy-handed and expensive FOI processes, the department’s officers could spend the 20 minutes it takes to remove personal details in each requested incident report and put it up on its website.
Doing anything else is a waste of resources, time and money and actively working against the public interest.
It is time for the deep culture of fear and secrecy in the public service to change. That’s right, DIAC officers are employed in the public service. They work for the public and should be acting in the public interest.
It’s really that simple.