Environmental activists in the dark as government refuses, delays access to information

Federal government agencies are refusing in full or in part the vast majority of requests for environment-related documents under freedom of information law in what the Australian Conservation Foundation says is a trend to secrecy that is threatening the country’s ecosystems.

As an example, the office of Environment Minister Sussan Ley instance Ms Ley refused 39 FOI requests outright in 2019-2020, granting only one request in full and three in part.

The Growling Grass Frog classified as endangered in Victoria.Credit:Geoff Heard

An analysis of FOI statistics by the ACF has accused the federal transparency system of being “dysfunctional”, saying that information held in records of government decisions, correspondence, research and briefs was critical to environmental protection. But this information was too often withheld entirely or released too late or too heavily redacted to be of use.

The report Access Denied examined government FOI data for the past five years alongside the results of more than 130 of the ACF’s own FOI requests. It found FOI refusals by federal agencies with an environment-relevant portfolio had risen almost 50 per cent in that time while the number of requests released in full had nearly halved.

Major delays are now routine with more than a third of the ACF’s own requests to agencies such as the environment, agriculture and energy departments and offices including the Prime Minister's were not resolved within statutory deadlines and almost all requests were delayed by a month or more.

The analysis also found that these agencies were among the government bodies which charged the most for FOI requests, on average doubling the charge of all requests across government generally.

The ACF stresses that important campaigns on issues including climate change, biodiversity collapse and water security have relied on access to information held by the government.

“But when government organisations operate in the dark, we cannot shed light on what is happening to our environment and communities, in order to better protect them,” the report found.

Refusals were especially prevalent when FOIs were to ministers’ offices rather than departments, the report found. On Thursday a spokesperson for Ms Ley would only say that “Minister Ley had “complied with statutory time frames and guidelines for all FOI requests since taking office in 2019”.

The report also said that, in 2018–2019 a total of 61 of 63 requests to Prime Minister Scott Morrison's office were refused in full. Sixty-five of 67 requests were refused in full in 2019-2020.

ACF democracy campaigner Joelene Elberth said access to public information was central to ACF’s work of protecting the natural world against harmful or corrupt decisions. But she said there are now “fundamental flaws” in an FOI regime that was supposed to facilitate open and transparent government.

“This has serious ramifications for efforts to tackle the climate crisis and protect Australia’s unique wildlife and precious natural ecosystems.”

When FOI laws were introduced in the early 1980s the default position was that information should be released. While exemptions for matters like privacy and commercial confidentiality, exemptions from FOI were meant to be exceptions.

But the ACF says the use of exemptions to refuse or redact information from environment-related portfolios has increased steadily with the report noting that agencies are applying more exemptions to more documents, resulting in less information being released

The ACF has called for a major review of transparency laws but also found a “bigger problem” was how laws are currently applied with deadlines missed, grey areas and loopholes are exploited to hide documents, redactions are used excessively and fees are overestimated.

The ACF analysis was based on a survey of government data including annual returns to the Office of the Information Commissioner, FOI disclosure logs published by relevant government departments, and the results of 109 of the ACF’s own FOI requests..

It follows the media industry’s Your Right to Know campaign around press freedom through 2019 and 2020 which also called for reform including FOI law.

The ACF research indicates problems with FOI at all levels of government but “a greater willingness on the part of state governments to release documents in full”.

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