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The Freedom of information Act 1982 (Cth) has been a feature of Australia's legislative landscape since 1982. The purpose of the Act was to open government activity to public scrutiny, so as to enhance accountability and encourage citizen engagement with public administration - the foundations of democracy.

In 2010 the Australian Parliament implemented wide-ranging open government reforms - the most significant FOI reforms in thirty years. The OAIC was established and substantial changes were made to the FOI Act.

These reforms strengthened the effectiveness and smooth running of the FOI Act - by simplifying the process for accessing government information; tightening the exemptions to information release; strengthening independent oversight and review of FOI administration; promoting proactive publication of government information; and clearly stating the open government object of the Act.

The reform took place against a backdrop of broad debate about adjusting the focus of public administration to improve service delivery, engage the community, foster collaboration between the public and private sectors, and utilise new information technology in achieving those objectives. This debate - taken up in numerous public sector reports and reviews - converged around the idea that, in the information age, information is a type of resource. By extension, government information is a national resource and as such, should be available for public access and use.

This idea is embedded in the reformed FOI Act which includes a powerful new statement of its object - 'to increase recognition that information held by the Government is to be managed for public purposes, and is a national resource' (s 3(3)). The Act includes a new scheme for the proactive publication of government information, which extends the focus of FOI from a reactive model to embrace a responsive, proactive model for information release.

About this Guide

This Guide positions the reformed FOI Act within the information policy landscape, of which there are many elements. One element is international support, in theory and legislative practice, for requiring transparency in government and conferring a legal right on the community to obtain access to government information. FOI is a principle enshrined in international human rights instruments and provides a legislative anchor for transparent government. This places it at the heart of democratic government.

Important too are the recent developments in government information policy that give a broader meaning to open government. Formerly synonymous with public access to government documents, open government now implies proactive publication of government information (open data) and government collaboration with the community in developing and reviewing policy and administration (citizen engagement).

Technology plays a key role in building this broader open government platform. New practices and concepts that overlap but are distinct become important, such as data management, information exchange, open standards, service delivery and more.

The Guide is divided into two parts:

  • Part A — Freedom of information past and present: provides an introduction to the foundational principles of FOI, explains the place of FOI within the broader framework of government information policy, and outlines the broader concept of open government. This Part also provides an overview of reforms to the FOI Act since 1982 and explains the role of the OAIC.

  • Part B — Key features of the Freedom of Information Act: provides a detailed summary of the FOI Act covering issues such as: its scope and application; the steps involved in processing FOI requests; exemptions under the Act; amendment or annotation of personal information held by government; review, complaints and appeals processes; and information publication requirements.

Terms and abbreviations are explained in the Glossary.

Where to go for further information

The OAIC has produced a range of agency resources which provide practical guidance on complying with the FOI Act and making good decisions.

The Information Commissioner has also issued guidelines under s 93A of the FOI Act to which ministers and agencies must have regard when performing functions and exercising powers under the Act. The guidelines cover all aspects of the operation of the FOI Act.

The guidelines and other FOI resources, including fact sheets for the public are available at Freedom of information on the OAIC website.

In July 2011, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet issued FOI Guidance Notes which are intended to assist agencies considering the application of exemptions for Cabinet and deliberative process documents when dealing with FOI requests.