Victorian government under fire over state secrecy
The review is politically sensitive for Premier Daniel Andrews’ government, which faces growing claims of secrecy. In recent months, for instance, it has rejected a bid for an oversight committee – that wasn’t controlled by Labor – to scrutinise its response to COVID-19; it has refused to release ministerial correspondence relating to the Casey land scandal; and it has remained tight-lipped about the national security advice it received before signing up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The five-year review into Victoria’s FOI regime found that more people are seeking information than in the past, on everything from the cost of infrastructure projects to details recorded by hospitals, schools or police.
Last year alone there were 38,876 FOI requests made in Victoria – only three fewer than for the Commonwealth – and an increase of 14.5 per cent over five years.
However, despite the growing appetite for information, only 64.79 per cent of documents released last year were released in full, falling from 70.25 per cent of fully disclosed documents in 2014, when Mr Andrews was elected.
Meanwhile, the proportion of partially or fully denied FOI requests has continued to rise since then (from about 29 per cent to 36 per cent), along with the number of complaints to the Information Commissioner’s office (243 to 506). The proportion of applications processed within the required time frame also worsened (from 94.5 per cent to 82.62 per cent).
Despite the trends, the government says it had no plans to review the FOI Act, with a spokeswoman for Attorney-General Jill Hennessy telling The Age on Tuesday: “We’ve made significant reforms to overhaul Victoria’s freedom of information system to give Victorians better access to information – including the establishment of the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner.”
One recent set of documents obtained by the Victorian opposition showed a series of emails were exchanged between the Andrews government and the Department of Foreign Affairs on the topic of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. However, most of the material had been blacked out, with the Premier’s department claiming that publication would “prejudice relations between Victoria and the Commonwealth”.
Opposition spokesman Kim Wells said the FOI Act “will need a comprehensive review” and accused Mr Andrews of misleading Victorians when he promised to be more open and transparent.
Victoria’s FOI laws were created in 1982 by the Cain Labor government. However, Mr Bluemmel said that while some improvements had been made in recent years – including giving his office more power to review decisions and require agencies to produce documents – other jurisdictions such as NSW and Queensland had overhauled their FOI laws to place a legislative obligation on the “proactive release” of information by bureaucrats.
At present, Victoria has professional standards encouraging disclosure, but they are not as strong as the laws in other states. FOI officers have also been known to deliberately manipulate exemptions to stop sensitive material being released, such as claiming that a document is “cabinet-in-confidence” simply because it has been given to a minister for briefing purposes.
“The more you can proactively release information – and leave FOI as a last resort – the better it is,” Mr Bluemmel said.
Farrah Tomazin is a senior journalist and investigative reporter for The Age, with interests in politics, social justice, and legal affairs.