Appendix 8—Freedom of information
The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) gives the Australian community the right to access information held by the Australian Government. The only limits are exemptions needed to protect essential public interests and privacy.
Amendment of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 and the Information Publication Scheme
The FOI Act was recently amended, the primary object being to enhance openness in government and to promote a pro-disclosure culture. The reforms were intended to:
- create a cultural change, making access to information the norm (in the absence of a compelling public interest against disclosure)
- place increased emphasis on the proactive publication of information
- drive an improvement in FOI administration
- promote a more strategic approach to information management
- improve the interface between privacy and freedom of information.
The amended freedom of information framework applies to all requests for access to records received from 1 November 2010 and, in addition to the changes noted above, introduced an Information Publication Scheme (the IPS). The FOI Act now requires (with some exceptions) that agencies publish information which is released in response to access requests.
Requirements for a section 8 statement
Before the commencement of the IPS on 1 May 2011, section 8(1) of the FOI Act required each minister responsible for an agency to publish a statement setting out details of the agency’s organisation, functions and powers, public consultation arrangements, categories of documents held and arrangements for public access to agency documents in the agency’s possession.
Section 8(1)(b) required the minister to publish an annual update of the agency statement and section 8(3) required both the first statement and the annual updates to be published in the agency’s annual report. In line with the Guidelines issued by the Australian Information Commissioner under s93A of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 and the Annual Reporting Requirements released by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the department has elected to include an update on the section 8 statement published in the 2009–10 annual report covering the period 1 July 2010 to 30 April 2011 inclusive.
From 1 May 2011 all agencies subject to the FOI Act are required to publish similar information to the public as part of the IPS. This requirement is in Part II of the FOI Act and has replaced the former requirement to publish a section 8 statement in an annual report. An agency plan showing what information is published in accordance with the IPS requirements is accessible from agency websites.
Information which would previously have been found in the department’s section 8 statement can now be found on the department’s website.
In line with its statutory obligations the department has published the following information:
- an agency plan which describes how the department proposes to comply with IPS requirements
- details of the department’s structure
- details of the department’s functions, including its decision-making powers and other powers affecting members of the public
- details of appointments of officers
- the department’s annual reports
- details of arrangements for members of the public to comment on specific policy proposals for which the department is responsible
- information in documents to which the department routinely gives access in response to requests made under Part III of the FOI Act
- information that the department routinely provides to the parliament in response to requests and orders from the parliament
- details of an officer who can be contacted about access to the department’s information or documents under the FOI Act
- the department’s operational information.
Update on section 8 statement
This section is presented in accordance with the requirements of section 8 of the FOI Act as required before 1 May 2011. All references to particular sections of the FOI Act in this part are references to the Act as it applied before 1 May 2011.
Departmental records indicate that 88 applications under the FOI Act were received between 1 July 2010 and 30 April 2011 inclusive.
Of the applications received, one was transferred to another agency, 23 resulted in a full disclosure of information, 22 resulted in a partial disclosure of information, 16 were the subject of a refusal decision, 14 were withdrawn and 12 were ongoing at 30 April 2011. There was also one request for internal review.
Information about categories of documents
Under section 8 of the FOI Act the department has to report details of certain categories of documents it maintains. The department holds a large range of documents in the following categories:
General policy:administrative files, consultants’ reports, memorandums of understanding, agreements, permits, licences, submissions, guidelines for programs, grant documents, financial records, staffing records, instructions of the secretary, legal documents and tender evaluations.
Specific: Australian Antarctic Division records, committee records, and court documents and records.
Parliamentary: briefing documents, Cabinet documents, ministerial submissions, policy advice, ministerial correspondence, explanatory memorandums to Acts, Ordinances and Regulations.
Manuals: in accordance with section 9 of the FOI Act, the department maintains a list of unpublished manuals and other documents used by departmental staff, as a guide to procedures and practices to be followed when dealing with the public. The list is available on request from the Freedom of Information Coordinator, any office of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) or the NAA website.
Some documents may have been transferred into archival custody or destroyed in accordance with the Archives Act 1983.
Arrangements for outside participation
Under section 8 of the FOI Act, the department has to report details of arrangements whereby members of the public can participate in certain kinds of decision-making.
The department consults members of the public and bodies outside the Australian Government’s administration when developing policy and programs, and in administering legislation and schemes. In addition to general public consultation, which may be a requirement of particular legislation, the department and the relevant minister receive advice from various scientific and expert committees and other bodies. A list is available on the department’s website.
Generally, people can participate by making oral or written representations to the minister or the department, or by putting submissions to the various working groups chaired by the department.
Formal arrangements for public consultation and examination may also arise under legislation administered by the department under the Administrative Arrangement Orders.
Formal arrangements under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981, Sea Installations Act 1987, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the environmental impact assessment provisions of the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980 provide for proposals to be examined publicly and for comments to be received.
For the purposes of the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Act 2005 the department established an advisory group to provide stakeholder advice on the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Scheme.
The department has also received public submissions in response to an issues paper released by the minister, entitled A sustainable population strategy for Australia.
Procedures for gaining access to information
Freedom of information matters within the department are handled by the Legal section in the Policy and Communications Division. Contact details for the Freedom of Information Coordinator are:
Phone: (02) 6275 9207
Fax: (02) 6274 1587
Written requests for access to documents should be addressed to:
Freedom of Information Contact Officer
Policy and Communications Division
Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
GPO Box 787
Canberra ACT 2601