The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) provides a legally enforceable right of access to government documents. It applies to Australian Government ministers and most agencies, although the obligations of agencies and ministers are different.
Why FOI is important
The Australian Parliament first considered introducing freedom of information (FOI) legislation in the 1970s. In 1979, a Senate committee report outlined three reasons why FOI is important:
- FOI allows individuals to see what information government holds about them, and to seek correction of that information if they consider it wrong or misleading.
- FOI enhances the transparency of policy making, administrative decision making and government service delivery.
- A community that is better informed can participate more effectively in the nation’s democratic processes.
These reasons are still valid today. More recently, a fourth reason for FOI has emerged — there is greater recognition that information gathered by government at public expense is a national resource and should be available more widely to the public. This idea was explicitly recognised through the reforms to the FOI Act in 2010 and the creation of the information policy function of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).
What is covered by FOI
The FOI Act promotes government accountability and transparency by providing a legal framework for individuals to request access to government documents. This includes documents containing personal or other information, such as information about policy-making, administrative decision-making and government service delivery. Individuals can also request that ministers or agencies amend or annotate any information held about them.
The FOI Act also requires agencies to publish other specified classes of information online. For more information, please see the What is covered by FOI page.
Who is covered by FOI
Most Australian Government agencies are subject to the FOI Act, and must release documents in response to an FOI request unless there is an overriding reason not to do so.
Some agencies, such as intelligence agencies, are exempt from the FOI Act altogether. Others, such as some courts and tribunals, are exempt in relation to certain documents.
Ministers are subject only to requests for ‘official documents of a minister’. This means documents relating to their role as a ministers, and not personal or party political documents, or documents about their electoral affairs. Ministers are also not subject to some of the proactive publication requirements the FOI Act places on agencies.
For more information, please see the Who is covered by FOI page.
The OAIC’s role in freedom of information
FOI is one of the three broad functions of the OAIC under the Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 (Cth).
The Australian 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.
To support this work, the OAIC has published a range of material about rights of the public and obligations of agencies and ministers under the FOI Act. Fact sheets and FOI topics explain the workings of the FOI Act and how individuals can exercise their rights under the FOI Act. The OAIC also provides advice about the obligations of agencies and ministers under the FOI Act through FOI Guidelines and other FOI resources.