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Australia's top public servants call for FOI reform to hide advice from public

Australia's most senior public servants have called for freedom of information laws to be amended to conceal sensitive advice to ministers from public scrutiny. 

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson and Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd outlined their vision at an industry event on Monday, claiming it would strengthen government policy. 

"The FOI act does not afford sufficient protection to public servants," Dr Parkinson said.  

"As leaders we need to use exemptions appropriately, but I would support going further and advocating for changes to FOI laws to protect the deliberative process."

"[This is] not to reduce our accountability, nor to protect us from stuff ups we may have made, but to enhance the capacity to give truly frank and fearless advice that good policy design needs."

His comments come after a report by former PM&C secretary Peter Shergold, which found public servants deliberately toned down their advice to ministers, which led to major policy failures. 

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It found the Rudd government's home insulation scheme, launched in February 2009, was plagued by "massive failures" characterised by weak advice from departments.

In 2010, Australia's FOI regime was reformed as part of a broader plan to improve transparency and to encourage public engagement in decision making. 

Six years later, those leading key government departments fear the changes have censored public servants. 

Close to 33,550 FOI requests were lodged with departments and ministers' offices last year. This was an annual increase of 25 per cent  due primarily to a spike in requests directed to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. 

Mr Shergold, who spoke at the event, said he was "absolutely convinced" protecting advice from public servants was in the national interest.

"It is very controversial for me to say that we need to rethink the FOI act to ensure that deliberative documents are protected," he said. 

He said briefs prepared for incoming ministers after a change of government were the perfect example of documents that should not be released to the public. 

His comments were supported by Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd, who said the bureaucracy was subject to sufficient scrutiny and accountability beyond FOI laws.  

"We have a high level of accountability in the public service with at least three senate hearings a year, an auditor general, ombudsman, privacy commissioner, information commissioner, and a public service commission just to name some," he said. 

He continued to say he was "dismayed" by how many times he had heard public servants say "don't put it in writing" to deliberately avoid any chance of a mention in FOI documents. 

Department of Industry, Innovation and Science secretary Glenys Beauchamp said the majority of FOI requests were from journalists "looking for stories" and her job would be easier if she did not have to manage that risk. 

"If we can't raise ideas early on in the process and make sure the information is protected then we are not going to be as frank and fearless as we possibly could."

"With the media cycle the way as it is, the hint of something happening within government [means] it automatically becomes public policy," she said. 

Treasurer secretary John Fraser is another top public servant who has raised concerns about the access of the public to correspondence between policy advisers and politicians.

"Freedom of information has made people extremely careful in the public service about what they put on paper, and that's sad," he said last year. 

"Open policy debate means people have got to be candid and at the moment a lot of it is done orally, which is a pity."