TRANSPARENCY in Tasmania has reached a perceived low point because government bureaucracies are too afraid of bad press to make information available to the public, a leading Freedom of Information academic believes.
Data shows 7.6 per cent of rejected right-to-information requests in Tasmania are appealed to the ombudsman – almost double every other state – causing further delays in the release of information from government departments.
Rick Snell advised the Tasmanian government when it updated right-to-information laws in 2009, but said insufficient staffing of the ombudsman’s office and a culture of department officials seeing “no net benefit” from providing information had undermined the changes.
The 2009 laws were intended to change this culture and encourage public servants to see the benefit to Tasmania in releasing information in a timely manner to create a “well-informed public”.
Dr Snell said departments’ default positions of refusing RTI requests, combined with funding and staffing shortfalls with the ombudsman, was harming transparency in Tasmania.
“The agencies will have a half-hearted look knowing they will refuse it, and hoping the applicant won’t go any further with a review,” he said.
“When there is a review, they collect the information but it hasn’t been sorted or classified, and dump it on the ombudsman increasing the workload again.
“They see it as a lose-lose, that it will end in a media report that paints them in a bad light.
“They need to weigh that overall public good against two days of bad press.”
Dr Snell said it was not a new problem nor was it restricted to one side of politics, and when the RTI Act was introduced in 1991 it was immediately subject to funding shortfalls.
He said the large workload for the ombudsman meant it could not undertake “proactive” activities to encourage greater transparency among government departments.
There is now just one person in the ombudsman’s office considering RTI reviews.
Discussion paper from 2009 reviewing an update of the Tasmanian Freedom of Information Act 1991:
Tasmania also has one of the lowest per-capita information requests in Australia and one of the highest refusal rates.
Labor attorney-general spokeswoman Ella Haddad described the figures as “abysmal” and blamed under-resourcing of the ombudsman.
“The government has under-resourced the ombudsman to the point there is only one staff member dealing with 50 cases which have been open for 415 days on average,” she said.
“The government is deliberately under-resourcing the appeals process.”
A government spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.