THE public’s access to information on issues like political donations, right to protest laws and discretionary funding decisions has been improved after a Supreme Court decision on Tasmania’s right-to-information laws this week, an RTI expert says.
But the ruling could also have opened up a loophole in which public agencies could channel documents to ministers’ offices to protect them from RTI requests.
The ruling found it was incorrect for a delegate of Premier Will Hodgman to use the public interest test to refuse to release advice on proposed changes to Tasmania’s gun laws, relied upon during last year’s election.
University of Tasmania senior law lecturer Rick Snell said it would shift the default position on the public interest test from refusing requests, to accepting requests.
“It will rejuvenate the RTI process and give applicants more information when they have been refused access,” he said.
“The judge has effectively put us where we ought to have been in the very beginning: when any decision maker is confronted with RTI requests, the assumption is that they will release the information.
“Only as a last resort can they argue against the public interest, and it has to be an overwhelming case.”
The Premier mentioned the existence of the advice during two public interviews, strengthening the case that it was in the public’s interest to access the advice.
Gun Control Australia had attempted to access the documents, and lodged the appeal in the Supreme Court. The Liberal Party revealed new gun laws one day before the state election, but has withdrawn them subject to an upper house inquiry.
The ombudsman originally found it did not have the power to review a decision made by a minister, or their delegate, who was in possession of the sought after information.
Justice Michael Brett agreed, finding reviews could only be made on information in the possession of public agencies.
Associate professor Snell said this could be exploited by agencies, and in the past in Queensland and Tasmania “boxes of documents” have been transferred to ministers’ offices and labelled “to be considered” or similar to avoid their release under RTI.
“It becomes a conveyor belt system that shifts these documents through to gain an exemption,” he said.
“Someone will exploit this loophole – not necessarily this government – but the problem with freedom of information is that bad ideas or bad practices spread like wildfire through the prairie. Once it starts, it really gets out of hand.”