Tasmania’s FOI regime crippled by ‘outrageous’ delays, academics say | Australia news
Academics and journalists say delays are crippling Tasmania’s freedom of information regime as new figures reveal the state’s understaffed public watchdog is struggling under the weight of its growing workload.
The lack of political transparency in Tasmania was laid bare in last year’s election, when voters were left unaware of the true influence of powerful gaming interests due to its weak and sluggish donation disclosure system, widely considered the worst in the nation.
But the RTI system is now beset by delays. Tasmania has been the worst performer on making RTI decisions within the statutory timeframes for two of the past three years on record. When decisions are made, they are by far the most likely to be appealed of any jurisdiction.
About 7.6% of the state government’s RTI decisions are appealed to the ombudsman, more than double the rate of Queensland, the next closest jurisdiction. Experts and the ombudsman have repeatedly said the high number of appeals are because the government fails to give adequate reasons when it refuses to release documents.
The chronically understaffed ombudsman’s office has just one officer working on RTI reviews.
The 50 cases before the ombudsman have been open for 415 days on average, according to data provided to Guardian Australia. It took an average of 318 days to complete an RTI review last financial year, up from 230 days the year before. The cases closed so far this financial year have taken an average of 687 days, although that number will fall as the year goes on.
The ombudsman said the problem would worsen unless the office was given more staff.
“With only a single staff member and a growing trend nationally of applicants seeking external review, it is likely the backlog will progressively worsen over time if resourcing levels remain the same,” the ombudsman said.
“Any delay will undermine the ongoing effectiveness of the external review process.”
A Tasmanian academic and FOI expert, Rick Snell, described the situation as “an absolute farce” and “just outrageous”. The backlog meant those making RTI decisions would not have to face the ombudsman’s scrutiny for years, by which time they were likely to have left or changed roles, he said.
“There is a fix, and that is to give the ombudsman immediately more staffing and resources,” he said.
Emily Baker, a political reporter with the Hobart Mercury, has seen examples of journalists waiting four years for an RTI appeal to be resolved.
“I’ve only been back working in Tasmania for about four months but, by way of example, an ABC journalist who appealed against an RTI decision in September 2014 only received a response in October 2018,” Baker said.
“The journalist has since left the state and the government-owned business that was the subject of the RTI has rebranded. The information – likely important in 2014 – is now relatively redundant.”
Snell said the ombudsman’s workload also created flow-on problems. The ombudsman had almost no ability to train government RTI officers, and had not updated the RTI guidelines or manual since 2010.
“There’s been no response from the government to even admit that they’ve got a problem, and certainly no response in providing the ombudsman with some spare staff to at least start addressing some of the key backlogs,” Snell said.
A spokeswoman for the Hodgman government responded to queries by sending Guardian Australia a two-sentence statement, which was word-for-word for the response given to the ABC months earlier.
“We have every confidence in the ombudsman’s office to undertake their duties,” it said. “While the office operates independently of government, we will continue to consult with the ombudsman’s office when it comes to budget submissions and matters of resourcing.”
The state government has moved on several other fronts to improve transparency in recent years. It has improved its disclosure of gifts to ministers and departments, and recently committed to a review of the electoral act, which controversially prevents newspapers publishing election content on election day.
But Baker said transparency of political donations was still sorely lacking. A recent poll by the Hobart Mercury found 94% of Tasmanians wanted improvements to the donations disclosure regime.
“Tasmania follows commonwealth guidelines, meaning we still don’t know who funded what in the March 2018 state election and could theoretically never find out the full extent of donations made,” she said.
The RTI scheme needed greater resourcing and greater consistency in application across various agencies.
“There is a sense of interference in some departments when RTI requests are made,” she said. “For example, staff from one minister’s office were revealed as discussing journalists’ RTIs, and I have had a media staffer call me after making an RTI request. As well, unfortunately like anywhere, RTIs are often heavily redacted.”