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Playing chicken to the detriment of democracy and cost to the taxpayer

by Rex Patrick | May 17, 2023 | What's the scam?

Far too often, government departments and its agencies deny Freedom of Information requests without good reason. It leads to unnecessary delays, costs, and the withholding of information that the public deserves to know. What’s the scam?

The scam is that in so many Freedom of Information (FOI) matters, the Government’s decisions have been very poorly thought out, or been deliberately contrived. The decisions are made by official who receive their pay cheque from the public. When I appeal their decisions, as I will do when they are bizarre, the Government often backflips at the 11th hour.

It’s become a pattern. Two weeks ago, 24 hours before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) was to convene to hear whether National Cabinet documents were being improperly withheld from the public, the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet capitulated. The meetings of the first 20 meetings of Scott Morrison’s National Cabinet were released to me.

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On Monday this week, a day before the AAT was to convene to consider whether the Secretary of the Department of Industry, Science and Research should release a gas reservation scheme ministerial briefing and options paper, the Secretary asked the Tribunal to pause so they could reconsider their position. The original decision ludicrously claimed, in the middle of a gas crisis where the Government was intervening in the market, to release documents on a Gas Reservation Scheme was not in the public interest.

In some sense, I would have loved to have cross-examined their officials to see which alternate universe they were working in, but it looks like a new and more access favourable decision will now be made.

I’m involved in two further FOI proceedings in the AAT where hearings are not that far away, and the Commonwealth is negotiating with me in the background (I won’t go to the details because I don’t want to disturb the good faith discussions).

In the meantime, democracy loses out because documents that should have been in the public domain contributing to debate are kept locked away. And the taxpayer loses too, because Agencies are bound by the Legal Services Directions to engage external lawyers and barristers to engage in AAT proceedings – and that costs money.

Democracy loses out, and the taxpayer gets to pay for it. That’s part of the scam. The other part is that no bureaucrat is ever held accountable.

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Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

Don't pay so you can read it. Pay so everyone can!

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