About freedom of information
On this page
- What is freedom of information?
- Who is covered by freedom of information?
- The OAIC's role in freedom of information
- What's changed in freedom of information
- Pro-disclosure culture
- Establishment of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner
- Reforms to freedom of information access requests
- Public interest test
- Documents that can be accessed
- Access to archival records
- Information Commissioner review process
- New freedom of information Guidelines
The objects of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) are
"(1) ... to give the Australian community access to information held by the Government of the Commonwealth or the Government of Norfolk Island, by:
(a) requiring agencies to publish the information; and
(b) providing for a right of access to documents.
(2) The Parliament intends, by these objects, to promote Australia's representative democracy by contributing towards the following:
(a) increasing public participation in Government processes, with a view to promoting better-informed decision-making;
(b) increasing scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of the Government's activities.
(3) The Parliament also intends, by these objects, to increase recognition that information held by the Government is to be managed for public purposes, and is a national resource.
(4) The Parliament also intends that functions and powers given by this Act are to be performed and exercised, as far as possible, to facilitate and promote public access to information, promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost."
For more information see our Guide to the Freedom of Information Act 1982 or our freedom of information frequently asked questions for the public.
The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) covers most, but not all, Australian Government agencies and Ministers, and the Administration of Norfolk Island.
For more information on who is covered see the chapter on the 'Scope of the application of the FOI Act' in our Guide to the Freedom of Information Act 1982.
All Australian States and Territories also have freedom of information laws covering their public sectors.
Freedom of information (FOI) is one of the three broad functions of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC). The main source of this function is the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act).
The Information Commissioner, supported by the Freedom of Information Commissioner, works to promote awareness and understanding of the FOI Act among both agencies and the public, promote a pro-disclosure culture across government and provide external merits review of FOI decisions made by agencies and ministers.
Education and training on the 2010 freedom of information reforms are a key focus of the Office. Guidelines and other resources developed by the OAIC are available in the Publications and resources section of this site.
Reforms to the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (the FOI Act) in 2010 introduced fundamental changes to the way information held by government is managed and accessed by members of the public. Some of the major changes are outlined below.
The objects of the FOI Act are a clear statement of the intention to promote disclosure of information held by government. The objects include to:
- give the Australian community access to information by requiring agencies to publish the information, and provide a right of access
- contribute to increased participation in government processes and increased scrutiny, discussion and review of government activities
- increase recognition that information held by government is a national resource
- promote public access to information, promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost.
The FOI Act sets out a process for ensuring the public's right to access documents held by government, but it does not prevent agencies from disclosing information outside that process.
The new Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), established under the Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010, includes two new statutory officers, the Australian Information Commissioner and the Freedom of Information (FOI) Commissioner.
The Information Commissioner, supported by the FOI Commissioner, acts as an independent monitor of FOI matters and reviews FOI access decisions made by agencies and ministers.
The Information Commissioner has also taken over most of the Commonwealth Ombudsman's functions in investigating complaints about handling of FOI requests. The Ombudsman can still investigate complaints relating to FOI where that would be more appropriate or effective.
Changes have been made to the FOI access request process, which:
- are directed at ensuring that the public's right of access to documents is as comprehensive as possible, and is restricted only where there is a stronger public interest in withholding access
- simplify and narrow the range of exemptions from access
- improve the process for requesting documents
- provide a new means of review of access decisions through the OAIC.
A new single public interest test weighted towards disclosure now applies to a greater range of exemption categories. The FOI Act lists certain factors favouring access in the public interest. Factors favouring disclosure include:
- promotion of the objects of the FOI Act
- informing debate on matters of public importance.
Factors which are not conducive to open and accountable government, including potential loss of confidence in or embarrassment to the government, may no longer be used to support non-disclosure.
Decision makers are now required to address the public interest factors taken into account when they give reasons for their decision.
An FOI access request may extend to documents held by a contracted service provider who is delivering services to the public on behalf of an agency. The agency must take contractual measures to ensure that if an FOI request is made, the agency receives documents that relate to the performance of the contract. A model clause has been drafted to assist agencies to meet that obligation for contracts entered into after 1 November 2010.
Exemption categories for Executive Council documents and documents relating to an agency's conduct of industrial relations have been repealed. There are limited exclusions of certain intelligence-related information, since the functions of intelligence agencies and other strategic defence programs would be compromised if the general standards of openness and transparency applied to them.
The period during which the FOI access regime applies to government information has been reduced. Open access under the Archives Act 1983 has been brought forward from 30 years to 20 years for all records other than Cabinet notebooks and census information, which have been reduced from 50 years to 30 years.
Cost can be a substantial barrier to access to information. All application fees, including fees for internal review, have been abolished. No costs will apply where a person requests access to their personal information. All charges will be waived if a statutory timeframe is not met.
Applicants who wish to have an FOI access decision reviewed can seek internal review by the agency or go directly to the Information Commissioner. This provides a further incentive for agencies to ensure the best possible access decision is made at first instance.
Information Commissioner reviews (IC reviews) provide a simple, practical and cost-efficient system for external merits review. Most matters are reviewed on the basis of the submissions and papers provided by the parties, rather than through formal hearings. Agencies and ministers must use their best endeavours to assist the Information Commissioner to make the correct decision.
Review officers will be helped in their early evaluation of the merits of the decision under review by considering the primary material and making preliminary inquiries of the agency or minister. An application may be resolved by agreement between the parties, but in other cases the Information Commissioner may issue a written determination affirming, varying or setting aside and substituting the access decision. Applicants who disagree with the Information Commissioner's decision can apply to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) for review.
An FOI applicant does not bear an onus of proof in either IC review or AAT review. In an IC review, the agency or minister must establish that their decision is justified. In AAT proceedings, the agency or minister must establish that a decision adverse to the FOI applicant should be given.
To manage access requests that are clearly unreasonable, the Information Commissioner can restrict an applicant's access rights by declaring the person to be a vexatious applicant.
The Information Commissioner can also investigate complaints about the actions of agencies under the FOI Act. The Commonwealth Ombudsman may still investigate complaints relating to FOI where that would be more appropriate or effective (for example, where the FOI complaint is only one part of a wider grievance about an agency's actions). In such cases the Information Commissioner and the Commonwealth Ombudsman will consult.
The OAIC has issued Guidelines and other material to assist agencies understand what the main changes to the FOI Act are, and how they affect agencies' activities.