February 11, 2012
Former premier John Cain. Photo: Angela Wylie
VICTORIA’S Freedom of Information Act has been undermined by secrecy-obsessed ministerial offices and bureaucrats, the father of Victoria’s laws has warned.
Thirty years after Victoria led the nation and created the act, the man primarily responsible, former premier John Cain, believes the laws are no longer operating as originally intended.
Writing in The Saturday Age, Mr Cain has condemned a culture of secrecy and a fixation on the ”daily media jungle” by both sides of politics, warning this has radically affected all aspects of public administration, including the Freedom of Information Act.
”The private offices of ministers became obsessive about secrecy in government and around all that it does,” Mr Cain writes.
He blames bureaucrats for regarding all information the government holds as confidential, partly because they believe the laws inhibit their ability to provide ”frank and fearless advice”.
The comments come as State Parliament prepares to vote on the Baillieu government’s new freedom-of-information commissioner, who will assess appeals against rejected requests to take the process out of the hands of the department that made the original ruling.
Mr Cain, who was premier and attorney-general when the laws were introduced, suggests the commissioner will make no practical difference. ”What needs to be corrected is the 30-year transformation of FOI into the world of political infighting, because that is where it is now, and has been for some years: a world where politicians say one thing in opposition and do another in government.”
Australia’s foremost academic expert on freedom of information, University of Tasmania professor Rick Snell, said the laws were intended to ”flick the switch”’ from a pre-19th century approach to secrecy to a much more open collaborative form of information sharing.
”Every year, every change of government and each new development in information management … have left the laws further floundering,” Professor Snell said.
There had been ”serious cultural hostility or, at best, blatant indifference” by many in leadership positions in public service, and a feeling by many public servants that the FOI process was a game where they could bend the rules, ignore the rules or simply stack the deck in favour of non-disclosure, he said.