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12 responses to “Comparing FOI regimes: NZ vs Australia”

  1. Tricky

    Having work for the NSW public service on and off for the past 20yrs I’ve watch the culture change from one that was in service of the public to one that is in service of various political PR machines. Each political party is as bad as the other.

    Ministerial PR staff don’t just look after the Minister’s office anymore but control the whole of the government departments.

    Before if the local media or interest group wanted to get information they spoke to the chief public servant in their area. Now absolutely everything HAS to go through the ministerial PR departments.

    Information released is carefully vetted, primed, distorted and disgustingly exaggerated for effect.

    Even with internal documents this culture is dominant.
    People with the ability the to use the most longwinded contorted language to describe simple concepts are promoted and valued. The more obscured the language the less responsible should the shit hit the fan.

    You’ll find many public servants have completely no idea what management are saying in their internal documents. Explanations will only be supplied verbally by the odd generous manager but never written. Confusion reigns.

    God help people who try to write clear concise information. The only people game enough to do that are on the verge of retirement.

    Not my department but this story is sadly too common right across the public service these days. Feel sorry for the guy “the emperors new clothes” scenario is rife in the public service. It is demoralising. I don’t know how it will change.

    http://www.smh.com.au/national/bullying-bottlenecks-and-death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts-20090327-9e78.html

  2. smokey

    NZ didn’t go to Iraq, there was no reason to hide anything from the public there.

    I’m a dual citizen btw.

  3. Robert Merkel

    Thanks, I/S. From an Australian context, the idea that cabinet documents are FOIable is flabbergasting – and, yet, when you think about it, is perfectly sensible.

    It’d be a great question to ask Faulkner, actually – “why not go with the New Zealand model”?

  4. Mervyn Langford

    Great to read. For this and many other reasons I think it important that NZ keeps Australia at arms’ length. I wonder if NZ’s new PM, Mr Key, will try and bury the process?

  5. wpd

    Certainly a very different approach. What about ‘private’ schools and hospitals which are in receipt of significant government subsidies? Are they subject to FOI applications as well or is the dirty washing display limited to the government sector, narrowly defined?

  6. Idiot/Savant

    From an Australian context, the idea that cabinet documents are FOIable is flabbergasting – and, yet, when you think about it, is perfectly sensible.

    They’re not just OIAable – they’re also routinely posted on the web. For example, when I first wanted to research climate change policy, I went here – and was able to read everything important from the “carbon tax” period (which is two policies ago).

    So its not just openness if you ask – there’s also a good culture of proactive release.

  7. Idiot/Savant

    What about ‘private’ schools and hospitals which are in receipt of significant government subsidies? Are they subject to FOI applications as well or is the dirty washing display limited to the government sector, narrowly defined?

    The OIA is fairly compehensive for the state sector, but doesn’t cover private institutions (not sure about integrated schools, which are quasi-state, quasi-private). They may however be covered by the Public Records Act if they do contract work for the government.

    The ombudsmen in their annual report last year noted an anomoly around integrated schools being outside their jurisdiction despite taking state money, and there may be some pressure to include them in future 9which would likely also bring them under the OIA).

    SOEs are covered, BTW – though they tend to be aggressive about claiming commercial sensitivity.

  8. myriad

    Excellent post, and yes, we should be pushing for the NZ model. While my experience in the Federal public service is nowhere near as bad as what Tricky has described for NSW, I do know that the Tas public service is similar to NSW, and broadly suspect that state public services are the worst transgressors.

    However the 3 Federal Depts. I have now worked in or with closely are miles away from being models of transparency. One of the few times I got into trouble as a ‘public face’ of one particular Dept. was for simply providing information to a disgruntled stakeholder about how to undertake an FOI process to view the basis of the decision they were unhappy with. I was accused of being ‘biased’ towards this stakeholder, which had absolutely nothing to do with it (he was a twat) but pointed out rather vigorously that all members of the public had the right to access the FOI process to understand government decisions. Equally one of the reasons I had good stakeholder relations on behalf of government was I shared the maximum amount of information I could freely, rather than withholding and obscuring it with ridiculously obtuse language. I’m rather old-fashioned, at nearly 35, in believing a public servant is just that.

    But not only is there a culture of withholding such basic information and, god forbid, training public servants in how to explain to someone how to start an FOI request, the process of the request itself is deliberately obscure, expensive and long. There are a million loopholes, of which the one most savagely exploited is ‘well they didn’t technically ask for this document so….’

    Perhaps most tellingly, when you are briefed / trained on FOI, in all but one Dept., it’s largely treated as a ‘threatening process’ that staff need to know about and fear. Now, it’s true that a good public servant should write everything like it could be FOI’d and therefore provide that impartial, transparent etc. advice, but when FOI is treated like a threat, it also means that Depts actively defend against the process in a plethora of ways.

    At the moment I work with former refugees, and trying to explain to them how to do a particular FOI process, and the often laborious forms, and often the costs associated, is really disheartening. It’s bad enough for those for whom English is our first language.

  9. Andrew E

    Ironic that most FOI legislation was introduced by Liberal governments during the ’80s, long before the neocons got hold of the commanding heights. Imagine Abetz and Ronaldson pushing for FOI – imagine any of the junior woodchucks in the Coalition who learned politics at Howard’s feet pushing seriously for greater info – nah, can’t see it myself either.

    The other main difference between NZ and the Federal government here is that Australia has a lot more info shared with the US. Because the US are paranoid about leaks that culture flows through to people who have to deal with US information providers, who absorb and transmit the paranoia about public disclosure. In NZ they’re not in the US information loop, hence no disclosure paranoia.

  10. Robert Merkel

    Andrew: my understanding was that a lot of US states have a lot more permissive FOI regimes, and governmental disclosure regimes, than Australia does.

  11. Paulus

    No, the US connection really has nothing to do with it. It’s only relevant in terms of defence and intelligence — and believe me, in those areas, our home-grown inclination towards secrecy needs no urgings from the US.

    In fact, some Australian academics (I’m thinking particularly of Prof Des Ball) have found out all sorts of interesting information about classified Australian defence issues by digging up material that is on the public record in the US.

  12. Andrew E

    That’s right Paulus, and much of Ball’s work highlights the fact that Australians take upon themselves/are expected to observe a higher level of security than the Yanks practice themselves.

    Robert: name me one US state run by the Qld AWU or the NSW Right. Would I be right in guessing that Illinois (home of the Daley machine) is not on your list?