A new analysis of the administration of Tasmania’s freedom of information laws has found the island state is the most secretive in Australia.
Environmental Defenders Office has reviewed the handling of applications under the state’s freedom of information law — the Right to Information Act 2009 (RTI Act) — and found Tasmania ranked last on many measures. The report found Tasmania had:
- The highest rate of refusals. Tasmanians are more likely to have their freedom of information applications refused than citizens anywhere elsewhere in Australia.
- An unacceptably high rate of errors. Tasmanian Government agencies routinely misinterpret the RTI Act when assessing applications. Up to 70% of refusals over the past five years have been overturned on review by the state Ombudsman.
- Unacceptably slow review times. Citizens had to wait almost three years on average to have refused RTI Act applications reviewed. When information is finally released, it is often too old to be of use.
- A large and growing backlog of unresolved reviews. Funding for external reviews has flatlined over the past decade while the number of reviews requested has increased steadily, creating a large and growing backlog.
- A low level of government accountability. In any democracy, access to government information is a critical component of government accountability. Currently, the RTI Act is not being administered in a way that allows for the efficient public scrutiny of government decisions.
The findings, contained in EDO Tasmania’s latest report, Transparent failure: Tasmania’s ineffective right to information system and how to fix it, highlight serious deficiencies in the administration of laws over an extended period. The report recommends 12 reforms to enhance transparency and efficiency in the administration of the Act by:
- Changing the government culture from one of secrecy to one of openness;
- Limiting legitimate reasons for withholding government information;
- Improving the quality of initial assessments;
- Reducing assessment and review times; and
- Enhancing transparency and efficiency.
Report author, Environmental Defenders Office Managing Lawyer (Tasmania) Claire Bookless said: “Our investigation has found the Tasmanian Government is the most secretive in Australia, and this has serious implications when it comes to the realm of environmental law.
Successive governments in Tasmania have denied or delayed access to information that citizens need to participate in environmental decision making, which is an essential part of any healthy democracy.
The tendency towards secrecy occurs particularly when the information may be embarrassing for the government or the industries it is supposed to regulate.
“Secrecy undermines public confidence in decision making and contravenes standards articulated in the United Nations’ Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment.
“It has been well over a decade since Tasmania’s last State of the Environment report. Timely public access to information about the health of our waterways, air and land is critical to securing and maintaining a healthy environment.
“Without ready access to government information about the environment and decisions that may affect it, the work of those trying to protect the environment, such as EDO and its clients, is severely undermined.
“The administration of right to information laws in Tasmania needs urgent reform.”