Proposed amendments to the ACT’s freedom of information laws to extend the timeframe for responding to requests have been blasted by the Opposition as an exercise in moving the goalposts.
Last week, Special Minister of State Chris Steel introduced amendments which would increase statutory processing times from the current 20 working days up to 30 working days.
Mr Steel also flagged a change which would mean the countdown for a request could essentially be paused while directorates waited to receive information relevant to the request.
“A more streamlined FOI framework supports applicants and respondents to direct resources and time to processes that contribute to fast and fair decision-making,” Mr Steel told the Assembly on Wednesday (21 September).
“This bill is intended to facilitate access to government information.”
But those comments have not been accepted by the Opposition which has, for a long time, been lamenting the speed at which the Government manages its FOI requests.
Shadow Attorney-General Peter Cain said the Government might well be introducing its amendments in the “name of transparency”, but that could not be further from the truth.
In budget estimates hearings late last month, Mr Cain revealed the average return time for the FOIs the Opposition had submitted was 40 days – double the 20-day statutory return time.
But Mr Cain said some departments were taking even longer to process FOIs.
The Community Services Directorate (CSD) had an average return time of 19 weeks and Environment Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD) took around 30 weeks, he said.
A review into the ACT’s Freedom of Information Act published in 2020 – and only released thanks to an FOI request – found the average processing time for FOI requests across all directorates was 30 days.
“At the moment, only one directorate in the ACT Public Service is meeting the 20-day statutory timeframe for processing FOIs. You can’t fix a problem by ignoring the root causes,” Mr Cain said.
According to Mr Cain, those root causes included inadequate staffing numbers, staffing models and ICT infrastructure.
However, Mr Steel argued his proposed amendments, including the timeframe adjustments actually better reflected reality and would help directorates meet their statutory timeframes.
Most requests, he told the Assembly, were being processed within 27 business days with small extensions of time agreed to by the applicant.
“If the majority of applications are resolvable within 27 days then this means the majority of extension requests are for small periods of time,” Mr Steel said.
“Increasing the statutory processing time from 20 to 30 working days avoids the need for these small extensions of time … and saves respondents, applicants and the Ombudsman from the administrative burden associated with seeking, agreeing or granting them.
“This amendment is not intended to delay access to government information in practice but it is necessary to update the legislation to ensure that statutory timeframes are fit for purpose.”
He has previously acknowledged resourcing was an issue but said the Government had been increasing funding to the area to meet an increase in demand.
The Canberra Liberals have proposed legislation which would mean cabinet documents in the Territory have to be proactively released after 30 days, instead of the current ten years.
Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee introduced her amendment bill to the ACT Legislative Assembly on Wednesday (21 September).
Ms Lee said those laws would improve transparency, accountability and integrity.
That proposal does have some precedent overseas but no other Australian jurisdictions have such a short timeframe for the release of cabinet documents.
New Zealand, which is also a unicameral jurisdiction so it does not have an upper house like the Territory, passed similar laws in 2018.
It’s recently been reported by New Zealand media that only 20 per cent of papers had been proactively released within the Government’s timeline.