Requests for information and documents from the environment department and related agencies are becoming increasingly delayed, redacted, refused and more costly, a new analysis has shown.
It comes months after the Australian Information Commissioner admitted there was a growing backlog of requests while Home Affairs remained under an ongoing investigation regarding its failure to adequately handle requests within the required timeframes.
The Australian Conservation Foundation has released a new report of its recent freedom of information figures relating to environment requests, highlighting a worrying trend for the already onerous process.
The report's figures show outright refusals for information requests had risen by nearly 50 per cent in the past five years while ministerial refusal figures remained high.
Decision delays were also climbing, representing more than a third of the foundation's requests, but associated charges were on the rise too.
In the five years between 2015 and 2020, the report found the average amount charged for environment portfolio requests was double the cost for other requests across the rest of government.
Practical refusals, where the agency declined the search as it was considered an "unreasonable" diversion of resources, had also spiked within the environment portfolio in recent years.
Jolene Elberth, the foundation's democracy campaigner, said the trends showed the country's information laws were failing the environment.
"There are fundamental flaws in the regime that is supposed to facilitate open and transparent government in Australia," Ms Elberth said.
"This has serious ramifications for efforts to tackle the climate crisis and protect Australia's unique wildlife and precious natural ecosystems."
One example highlighted in the report shows a request made in 2019 to the former Department of Environment and Energy, now merged with Agriculture and Energy, was granted with exemptions and heavy redactions, according to the foundation.
The request was seeking correspondence and documents relating to a proposed plan to give carbon-reduction credits to coal-fired power plants. The foundation referred the released, redacted documents to the Australian Information Commissioner for review in March 2019 but it has yet to be assigned a case officer nearly two years later.
While the first five hours of a request's decision-making process is free under the Act, another example sighted by The Canberra Times shows the department requested a charge of $17.66 for the retrieval and decision-making process of a two-page document.
The foundation argues these examples highlight the stifling of an important process gathering information on key decisions made about the environment.
"Environmental and natural resources are a major source of wealth," Ms Elberth said.
"It's no surprise then there are a lot of special interest to attempt to influence environmental decision making and we entrust our elected representatives to make decisions about these common resources that are in the public interest."
To avoid that, Ms Elberth said it was important that documents were released in a timely manner so these decisions could be properly vetted and scrutinised.
"If we don't have adequate transparency of our environmental decision-making, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to actually have democratic accountability for the decisions being made," Ms Elberth said.
"If information is not [delivered] timely [and] it's delayed being released then it is often too late to further scrutinise, or perhaps, have further public debate about that decision.
"All parliamentarians and observers who care about the transparency of Australia's democracy should be concerned by these figures."