Issues the government tried to hide
These are some of the issues the Australian government doesn't want you to know about.
From whales harpooned in our oceans to a money trail from foreign investors paying their way into Australia, News Corp has compiled just some of the information requests in the public interest that have been refused by government officials.
The dossier of denials should be shocking but testimony before the Senate's Press Freedom Inquiry has heard rejections of this kind have become commonplace and part of a larger "culture of secrecy" taking hold in Australia.
Experts say a comprehensive review of 37-year-old Freedom of Information laws is years overdue, year-long delays are rife, and the public is being robbed of its right to know.
Examples of FOI requests the Australian government has tried to block include footage of live exports in case it was used to lobby against the act, and details of foreign investments used as part of a controversial visa scheme.
Electronic Frontiers Australia policy committee chair Angus Murray said the examples showed Australians were being denied information on topics they "absolutely" had a right to know about, and the Morrison Government's failure to deliver on FOI reform or protect whistleblowers were cause for alarm.
"Our government is chilling a heap of freedoms, including attempting to silence whistleblowers and introducing very intrusive surveillance powers," he said.
"History has taught us that when we wander down the path of government censorship that turns into a society that has dangerous hallmarks attached to it."
Lawyer and FOI consultant Peter Timmins said the laws designed to give Australians access to information had helped to uncover corruption, fraud, systemic failures and other issues but information requests were now being routinely refused or denied.
"There are a lot of delaying tactics involved and there's a bit of a mentality that exceptions are there to be claimed. The spirit and intent (of FOI laws) is that people are entitled to get what they ask for unless there's a very good reason why they shouldn't. There's been a bit of an inversion of that," he said.
"There are certainly lots of important things that have been kept confidential or secret despite the fact there would be pretty strong public interest argument for them."
Mr Timmins, who was previously the deputy chairman of the independent Audit of Free Speech in Australia, said a legislative review recommended changes to modernise and improve the regime in 2013.
Another report recommending FOI reforms after Australia joined the International Open Government Partnership landed on the desk of Attorney-General Christian Porter in March last year but no action has been taken.
Mr Timmins said the Your Right to Know campaign, and two current inquiries into press freedom, should give the Morrison Government an opportunity to act on recommended reforms.
"It's been a long time since we had high-level leadership in government that has talked about the importance of transparency. Certainly there's no one in the current government," he said.
"The public service are good at reading between the lines and there would be a perception between senior and middle public servants that the government is not committed to the spirit and intent of open government legislation."
The dossier of denials also comes just a week after a number of newspapers turned their front pages black to highlight government secrecy.
A media coalition behind the Your Right to Know campaign, which includes News Corp, the ABC, Nine, SBS, The Guardian, and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, is asking for six reforms to ensure the public is kept informed about government actions, including changes to Freedom of Information laws to reduce delays, obstacles, costs, and wide-ranging exceptions.
Subject: Foreign investors paying to get into Australia
Agency: Department of Home Affairs
Hundreds of cashed-up foreign investors are paying $5 million to buy their way into Australia through the controversial Significant Investor Visa program but little is known about the projects they fund or who they are. All attempts to gain information about the investments and the people have been blocked with multiple FOI requests about the issue blocked. Documents this year revealed some had been stripped of their visas due to projects not going ahead and bad behaviour, but the government refused to release further details under the guise of privacy. Alarmingly, a Productivity Commission report in 2016 called for the visa to be scrapped because its benefit could not be proved and the program was a corruption risk.
- Alex White
Subject: Video of whales harpooned in the Southern Ocean
Department: Australian Customs Service
Footage of whales being harpooned by a Japanese whaling operation in the Southern Ocean was captured by Australian Customs officials in 2008, and became the subject of Freedom of Information requests by the Humane Society and Sea Shepherd, starting in 2012. A five-year battle over the footage ensued, with the Australian government claiming that releasing the video would "affect international relations". The FOI ruling was overturned by the Information Commissioner.
Subject: Death of 609 sheep on board a ship to the Middle East
Agency: Department of Agriculture and Water Resources
An independent observer reported sheep on board the MV Al Shuwaikh experienced heat stress for eight days as it travelled to Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. More than 600 sheep died during the 30-day voyage. RSPCA Australia requested video captured during the animals' journey under FOI laws but the request was denied more than a year later by the Department of Agriculture on the basis it could be used to "lobby for the banning of the trade" or to negatively impact the exporter.
Subject: Secret payout to the public servant behind Utegate
Agency: Administrative Appeals Tribunal
Former Treasury official Godwin Grech was the man at the centre of a national scandal in 2008 after he forged an email smearing the Rudd Government, leaked that information to the Coalition, and ultimately ended the first Liberal leadership of Malcolm Turnbull. He was not charged with a criminal offence, even though the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions said there was evidence he had broken the law. In 2013, Grech sought compensation from the Federal Government's insurer on the basis of ill-health, lodging three cases but the public and media were not allowed to attend the tribunal where the cases were heard. Legal applications to unearth details of the claims and reported settlement were denied.
Subject: Complaints about ministerial behaviour in Commonwealth vehicles
Agency: Department of Finance
Following a tip-off about Federal Ministers behaving poorly in government cars, this Freedom of Information application sought details about complaints lodged against them. The application was sent in 2017 but it was rejected by the Department of Finance. This decision was overruled by the Information Commissioner but the documents were not provided until two years after the initial request. Even then, information was heavily redacted, with no names provided.
Subject: Details of Queensland's Rail Fail crisis
Agency: Queensland Government
A train driver shortage that spilt over into the collapse of the passenger train network in late 2016 was met with more secrecy when FOI requests about it were denied or heavily redacted. Despite the Palaszczuk Government ordering a Commission of Inquiry into the crisis, it rejected a Right to Information application by The Courier-Mail for ministerial emails with union officials and discussions relating to the Traincrew agreement at Queensland Rail. The denial was overturned on review and the papers were released in 2018. Queensland Rail also denied an FOI request into the more than $7 million in bonuses paid during the Rail Fail crisis, and another seeking details of costly changes to the state's passenger rail fleet to give train guards a fixed location at the back of the trains.
- Kelmeny Fraser
NEW SOUTH WALES CASE
Subject: Taxpayer-funded New Year's Eve jaunt
Agency: NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet
WHEN a senior NSW Government minister cruises around in his taxpayer-funded vehicle on New Year's Eve, the public has a right to know where he is going. Yet the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet said this information was off-limits. In June, News Corp asked about movements of a NSW minister's vehicle from one event to another, picking up others along the way. Although DPC claims not to log specific locations, it does have tollway records for infrastructure such as the Harbour Bridge and Cross City Tunnel. The government claimed this was "personal information" and that "a person's location can be sensitive personal information and disclosure of this information under the Government Information (Public Access) Act goes against the important right of individuals to privacy". Details of a minister engaged in official business should not be classified as "personal information". It should be proactively released by government without the need for a request.
- Ben Pike