(Nov. 17, 2010) Changes to Australia's freedom of information (FOI) laws came into effect on November 1, 2010. (Press Release, Hon. Brendan O'Connor, New Era of Freedom of Information Starts Today (Nov. 1, 2010),
The reforms are contained in the Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 and the Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Act 2010, both of which were enacted in May 2010. (Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 (Cth),
B2A01C27FD4992C9CA25773B000CD2C6?OpenDocument; Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Act 2010 (Cth)
F9784F0CB3771F60CA25773B000A085E?OpenDocument (both last visited Nov. 4, 2010).)
The Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 established a new Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), which consists of the Australian Information Commissioner (who heads the Office), a new Freedom of Information Commissioner, and the Privacy Commissioner (who was previously appointed under the Privacy Act 1988, but whose functions have now been incorporated into the OAIC). (See Our Executive, OAIC,
http://www.oaic.gov.au/about/exec.html.) The Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan, said:
The OAIC fills a major gap in the system. We will champion open government, provide advice and assistance to the public and promote better information management by government. Our Office will have a comprehensive range of functions, including investigating complaints, reviewing agency FOI decisions, education and awareness, and reporting on compliance. (Press Release, OAIC, The Australian Information Commissioner Will Protect Information Rights and Advance Information Policy (Nov. 1, 2010), http://www.oaic.gov.au/news/media_release_oaic_launch.html.)
The 2010 FOI reforms “represent the most substantial changes to Australia's national freedom of information legislation since the FOI Act came into force in 1982.” (Information Law, OAIC, http://www.oaic.gov.au/law/#OAIC (last visited Nov. 4, 2010).) The changes include:
- New objectives in the legislation relating to promoting disclosure of information held by the government. The objectives include giving the public greater access to information by requiring agencies to publish information and by providing for a right of access, increasing public participation in government processes, and increasing recognition that “information held by [the] government is a national resource to be managed for public purposes.” (OAIC, Freedom of Information – What's Changed? (FOI Fact Sheet 2, Oct. 2010),
- Improvements to the request process, including provision for requests to be made in different ways, a requirement that agencies approach the OAIC if they need an extension to the30-day time limit for processing a request, and a requirement that agencies publish on their websites the details of information released in response to requests.
- Introduction of a new, single public interest test that will be applied in determining whether access to a “conditionally exempt” document can be denied; the test is weighted towards disclosure, with access to be denied only if, on balance, it would be contrary to the public interest.
- Extension of the types of documents that can be requested to include those held by a contracted service provider who is delivering services to the public on behalf of an agency.
- Reduction in the fees that can be charged for decision-making processes, and the removal of all application fees for requests.
- Provision for the ability to go directly to the Freedom of Information Commissioner for a review of a decision on a request, with the agency or minister required to establish that the decision is justified. (Id; Press Release, Hon. Brendan O'Connor, Fees for Freedom of Information Requests to Be Slashed (Oct. 27, 2010), http://www.ministerhomeaffairs.gov.au/www/ministers/oconnor.nsf/Page/Med
“These changes reflect a broader policy change that acknowledges that information held by the Government is a national resource to be managed for public purposes. We look forward to ensuring that this policy shift becomes a reality for all Australians when they deal with Australian Government agencies,” McMillan said. (Press Release, OAIC, supra.)