Freedom of Information Act is under attack

Doing away with the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) sounds like a crazy idea. Especially when you consider the way the Abbott government has gone about reducing access to information by defunding organisations critical of government, saying something is “operational” or just refusing to release the information because it might “damage Australia’s international relations.”

But the UK Cabinet Secretary, Francis Maude is doing the opposite. He hopes open data will remove the need for the FoI Act because “people won’t have to ask”.

Conservative think-tank, Policy Exchange, in a 2012 report said better use of data, technology and analytics could help the UK government save billions by improving efficiency rather than cutting services. It predicts the “data force” could save taxpayers up to £33bn per year. Not only could it save taxpayers money, it could improve public policy and importantly improve accountability and transparency of government decisions.

Let me be clear, I don’t want this to sound like some newfound affection for UK right-wing politics. It isn’t. David Cameron has used austerity measures to increase inequality. All the while letting the big banks responsible for the UK economy almost falling off the cliff completely off the hook. Now welfare reforms and tax changes will widen income inequality between rich and poor on a scale similar to that of Margaret Thatcher according to a report by the Fabian Society.

But this is about practicing what you preach.

In 2010 David Cameron campaigned on improving transparency and accountability. And in 2011 I was working at the Home Office at the time when they launched street-level crime maps, showing exactly what crimes had been committed across the whole of England and Wales. This example typifies what big data can achieve and one that goes to improving transparency and accountability.

Compare this with Tony Abbott telling the Australian public in his Real Solutions booklet that an Abbott led Coalition government would “restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you.” In reality what we’ve seen from this government is the opposite, amounting to yet another broken promise.

The FoI Act is a powerful tool for the public. But like so many things it is under attack. The Abbott Government has a bill before the Parliament that seeks to undermine and weaken the Act.

The bill would abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, an independent final place of appeal for those seeking documents under the Act. In anticipation of tearing down the office the government has stripped it of its funding – a mere $10.2 million over four years. The office faces the bizarre situation of still being in existence but with no money. Appeals to the office cost nothing but the government wants to charge people to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – this will cost $861, plus legal advice and representation charges.

This is a blatant attack on the freedom currently enjoyed by Australians. And how does this sit with Mr Abbott’s pre-election promise for greater accountability and transparency?

Contrast this with the US where two Senators from either side of politics have teamed up to strengthen their FoI Act. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent. It then was sent to the House of Representatives, which had already passed its own version of the reforms by an overwhelming vote of 410-0. Given the current political climate in the US to achieve such bipartisan agreement on anything is nothing short of a miracle. But it does show the importance both sides hold to appearing to improve accountability and transparency.

In the UK, every Secretary, Minister, political staffer and senior civil servant must publish details of meetings with external organisations, gifts (given and received), hospitality and overseas travel on a quarterly basis.

The media has always been a strong supporter of the FoI Act. Documents released to Fairfax Media showed the government delivered its budget fully aware its spending cuts would hit poorer households much harder than wealthier ones.

Previous FoI requests by the Transport Workers’ Union uncovered further evidence of excess. A $30,000 “Roman Holiday” by education minister Christopher Pyne to London and Rome in April showed he spent $1,352 for a day let at the Corinthia Hotel and spent over $2000 for VIP services at Heathrow Airport. The minister’s wife accompanied him on the trip despite the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin in her letter approving the trip acknowledging it did not comply with the government guidelines on overseas trips by ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

We are a long way from seeing the current government commit to principles of open data as articulated by the UK Cabinet Secretary, Francis Maude. Mr Abbott promised openness before he came to government. His failure in this regard would suggest either his word is no good or that his government has something to hide. It’s time he looked to his Conservative colleagues in the UK and US to learn a few lessons. But my message to the broader labour movement is, if Mr Abbott won’t be transparent lets make him accountable by submitting our own FoI requests.




About Polo Guilbert-Wright

Polo Guilbert-Wright

Polo Guilbert-Wright is a graduate of public policy from the London School of Economics. Between 2005-07 he worked as a policy and later a media adviser to a number of NSW Ministers. In 2007 he moved to London where he worked for a global public affairs consultancy before becoming a media adviser in the UK Home Office, responsible for immigration, security, and law and order. Since returning to Australia in 2012 he has been working for a leading trade union. He holds a BA/LLB from the University of NSW and tweets @pologuilbert

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