Federal Politics


Officials not so free with freedom of information

IT IS enough to put you off your lunch - the worst parts of the wrong animals being passed off to unsuspecting consumers as human-grade beef.

The 1980s royal commission into the meat substitution scandal revealed some truly shocking disregard for public safety and health standards, and caused a major international incident that threatened an important export industry. Yet three decades after the scandal was revealed, we learn that some of the biggest names in the business at the time were allegedly involved in passing off tonnes of offcuts and pet food as quality beef.

The fact that it has taken three decades for this information to be revealed is in itself a scandal, and highlights not only the importance of freedom-of-information laws, but the difficulties faced by those trying to use them. Veteran journalist Jack Waterford first lodged his request for the documents in 1982 - one of many requests for information lodged on the day the act first came into existence. He was later named Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year for his pioneering use of the act.

Yet despite the lofty statements of many federal, state and territory leaders about the importance of accountability and accessibility of government information, many of the holders of that public information continue to obfuscate, delay or redact details that should be freely available to the public.

Unacceptable use of a government officer's time is often cited as grounds for rejecting access to government documents. When documents are released, many fall victim to the heavy black pen of the departmental FOI officer.

The supposedly legally binding 30-day time frame attached to FOI requests is rarely met, indicating most government departments are either inadequately resourced to properly respond to the number of legitimate requests, or do not want to release the information.

While it might sound like sour grapes for a newspaper to complain about having access requests rejected or redacted, it needs to be remembered that most requests do not come from journalists. They are lodged by individuals, often trying to find out what various areas of government have written or said about them. They do not have the same resources as media businesses to spend years fighting for access.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair famously once described his government's introduction of freedom-of-information laws as one of his greatest acts of stupidity.

That statement alone should be enough to remind us just how important these laws are in keeping the powerful accountable.