Monday, July 11, 2011

My email of 22 February 2011 commenting on the FOI decision on waiving processing charges

Dear Ms Clark,

Thanks for your email and letter of 17 February 2011. I accept Ms Lynch’s decision 'to waive all FOI processing charges' even through some reasons for the decision are strange to me. Please kindly advise when I can get the documents requested.

When last time Ms Lynch made the decision that the $30 application fee should be waived, she did not provide her reasons. This time you outlined her reasons for waiving the processing fees. Like Mr Anderson in his decision on waiving the application fee, you referred to the Government’s FOI Guidelines, which request the decision maker to ask the question, ‘whether the benefit from the release of the information contained in the particular documents sought would flow to the public at large, or a substantial section of the public’ (bold added). That is not the question asked by the FOI Act. The FOI Act asks: ‘whether the giving of access to the document in question is in the general public interest or in the interest of a substantial section of the public’(bold added). It does not request ‘benefit…flow to the public at large’. In my opinion the Government’s FOI Guidelines is incorrect in that regard.

According to the Australia’s National Dictionary—Macquarie the first three definitions of 'benefit' are:

‘1. an act of kindness.
‘2. anything that is for the good of a person or thing.
‘3. a theatrical performance or other public entertainment to raise money for a worthy purpose.’

And the first three definitions of 'interest' are:

‘1. the feeling of one whose attention or curiosity is particularly engaged by something.
‘2. a particular feeling of this kind.
‘3. the power of exciting such feeling; interesting quality.’

‘Benefit’ requests a positive result whilst ‘interest’ does not. In other words, the Guidelines request a decision maker to make sure that ‘the release of the information contained in the particular documents’ has detrimental effects to ‘the public at large, or a substantial section of the public’. Ms Lynch failed to identify any particular document requested would have detrimental effects to the general public or a substantial section of it; therefore, her decision failed to show any substantial reasons to justify her opinion on my public interest grounds. This may not be all her fault. She is paid to follow the Guidelines even it is ridiculous. Nevertheless, I cannot argue whether or not the general public or substantial section of it will get benefit from the documents requested so far because the contents of the documents have not been shown to me. It sounds insane that I ask first to access the documents for complaining and reviewing some Ms Lynch’s reasons for her decision in relation to accessing those documents. In my opinion, if I follow the Guidelines, I have no other choice. I kind of understand Ms Lynch’s difficulties to follow the Guidelines.

I would like to get any comment about my opinion on the Guidelines from you or Ms Lynch.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Decision dated 17 February 2011 from Ms Philippa Lynch, First Assistant Secretary, Government Division of the Department of the Prime Minister and Chamber