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New FOI charges scheme should prioritise free access to govt info

Media Release
Lee Rhiannon 27 Mar 2012

The Australian Greens today welcomed the Information Commissioner’s recommendation of an ‘administrative access’ scheme, to encourage government agencies to hand over documents to the public free of charge, but warned the Attorney General against using the review as a springboard to increase charges that will deter the public from pursing FOI requests.

Professor John McMillan today released a report proposing changes to FOI charges scheme under the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act 1982.

 “The Information Commissioner is under pressure from threatened budget cuts and a chorus of government departments calling for large fee increases. He has done well to resist big leaps in charges,” Greens Senator and democracy spokesperson Lee Rhiannon said.

“In submissions to the review of FOI charges, the Department of Finance and Deregulation called for application fees to be reinstated at cost of $20-$30 and the Department of Resources, Energy and Trade called for fees to be increased to $50.
“These departments are clearly not coping with the brave new world of transparent government and seeking fee increases to lessen their workload.

“Attorney-General Nicola Roxon needs to remember the commitments the government made to open government.

“It’s a no brainer that fees and charges will deter the community from seeking information and holding government to account.

“Access to information held by the government should be a right, not a service restricted to those with deep pockets.

“The government should concentrate less on fees and more on developing creative ways of reducing FOI costs to the public and applicants. For example by proactively publishing more information on department websites and reducing review costs by being less defensive in making determinations.

“In Tasmania, there is a flat application fee of $35, which may be waived due to financial circumstance or if the information is of a public interest, and there are no other fees or charges.

“In suggesting changes to the cost structure, it is disappointing that Mr McMillan did not recommend that charges be based on the amount of information provided rather than the time taken to process a request.

“Charging by the amount of information provided has been recommended by the Australian Law Reform Commission, an independent review panel into Queensland’s FOI system and by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

“This would make charges more transparent and stop individuals wearing large costs where departments take too long to find documents because of poor record management systems,” Senator Rhiannon said.

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