I share the pain of the Newcastle Herald (What they don't want you to know 18/6) and many erstwhile grassroot community groups forced to navigate the costly and time-consuming bureaucratic mirror maze to extract the simple truth from all levels of government.
As the adage goes, knowledge is power.
Freedom of Information (FOI) laws give Australian citizens a legal right to discover what is really going on in the corridors of power.
After all, we have elected these people, and we must retain the right to know how they are exercising the power we've given them.
FOI laws were originally designed as an important public safeguard to promote government transparency and accountability.
These laws are critical to prevent abuses of power, dishonesty and corruption and, ensure this happens in a timely way.
However, there is arguably no more misnamed legislation than our FOI laws. They have now effectively become Freedom From Information (FFI) laws. An ugly transformation which coincides with the public trust in Australian government at an all-time low.
There is arguably no more misnamed legislation than our Freedom of Information laws. They have now effectively become Freedom From Information laws.
What is perhaps most disappointing is that our governments appear to be taking no action to rectify this dangerous state of affairs.
In 2008 I discussed with a leading journalist, his frustration with the inordinate delay from the police and pub industry's opposition to the release and publication of crucial public interest data revealing the most violent pubs in NSW.
The information was finally released around the same time the police officer involved in the case reportedly resigned and joined the Australian Hotels Association (AHA).
The publication of the list of the most violent pubs in NSW proved incisive. It was reported that one of the most violent pubs had also won several AHA awards include the best NSW pub of the year. It also had made sizeable political donations.
In 2018 I lodged a request under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 tothe NSW Police in Sydney to obtain a copy of their submission to the inquiry into Newcastle's life-saving package of liquor license conditions.
The Inquiry was instigated after a six months earlier undisclosed submission from the AHA to the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority.
While local police were happy with my request, it was refused by the Sydney police hierarchy on the basis it may reveal secret informant information and ironically 'endanger the security of, or prejudice any system for protecting life; health and safety of any person'.
A request was made to the NSW Information and Privacy Commission (IPC) to review the police decision. The response was quite scathing of the police refusal however, the police declined to accept the IPC recommendations.
It finally took a $100 review application to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) and the engagement of a barrister to finally prise a copy of the brief submission from the police hierarchy, a document that strongly opposed the abolition of our Newcastle liquor conditions.
The provision of the police submission was delayed until just before the NCAT hearing was to start. None of these costs were, of course, recoverable from the NSW Police.
It should have never been suppressed from the Newcastle public vitally concerned with the continuing safety of their streets and licensed premises.
As part of my ongoing research, I recently attempted to obtain the actual numbers of government liquor compliance inspectors over the past few years. I suspect they may have significantly fallen under industry lobbying promoting deregulation.
My informal requests to date have been denied because of a lack of resources and question over the usefulness of the information.
The above cases are typical of what too many others are forced to endure across multiple jurisdictions including planning, mining, environment protection etc.
It is easy to understand why local community groups and investigative journalists are so disillusioned with the deliberate subversion of this important FOI public interest safeguard.
Regardless of whether its local, state or federal government, it is time they were all compelled in the interests of trust, honesty and integrity, to put all their cards on the table - with nowhere to run, no way to delay and frustrate and, nothing to hide.
Tony Brown is a PhD (Law) Candidate, Conjoint Fellow School of Medicine and Public Health - University of Newcastle
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