Annual Report 2003-2004
 

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Your location: Performance > Outcome 3 > Output 3.1 > 3.1.3 Freedom of information and archival research and clearance

OUTPUT 3.1: Public information services and public diplomacy

3.1.3 Freedom of information and archival research and clearance

On this page: Freedom of Information :: Historical publications and information :: Historical research and access

Freedom of information

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 1982 extends the right to the Australian community to obtain access to information held by the Government. Access is limited only by exemptions protecting essential public interests and the business and private affairs of people about whom departments and statutory authorities may hold information.

The department processed 68 requests from the public during the review period. About one-third of these applications were complex requests for a substantial volume of information on sensitive topics. The outcomes of applications are indicated in Table 13. The limited number of applications not completed within the statutory deadline generally reflected the volume or complexity of the information requested. In these cases we kept applicants advised of progress.

The department strengthened its capacity to meet its obligations under the Act by bringing the FOI Unit into a new Information Resources Branch, established in September 2003 to provide improved senior-level management of a range of information functions. The department was proactive in managing FOI applications, liaising closely with applicants in an effort better to meet their requests for information. In a number of cases, senior departmental staff briefed applicants outside the formal FOI process, achieving a better service from the applicants' perspective.

We also made significant efforts to improve the processing time for applications. These efforts were supported by the implementation of a new FOI database to improve the monitoring and tracking of all FOI applications. These changes resulted in only one complaint being made to the Commonwealth Ombusdman about the department's handling of an application, down from three in the previous year.

There was a small increase compared with the preceeding year in the number of applicants who sought an internal review of the department's original decision and in the number of applicants who appealed the department's decisions to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). The department is awaiting decisions in two of the three cases which went to the AAT (with the third expected to be heard in July 2004). There were no AAT cases from 2002–03 held over to 2003–04 for decision.

TABLE 13. REQUESTS PROCESSED UNDER THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT 1982
  2003–04 2002–03 2001–02
Requests for information
Access granted in full 13 8 11
Access granted in part 27 19 25
Access refused 22* 20 8
Requests transferred or withdrawn 16 16 12
Total 68 63 56
Requests subject to review or legal appeal
Subject to internal review (s.54) 9 5 4
Subject to AAT appeal (s.55) 3 1 1
Ombudsman 1 3 2

* Eighteen applications were refused on the grounds that no documents existed (s.24A); two applications were refused as all documents were subject to exemption under Part IV provisions; one application was refused as the documents were created by an exempt agency (s.7) and one application for the amendment of personal records (s.48) was also refused.

The department's Section 8 statement is at Appendix 5.

Privacy Act 1988

No complaints were received in the department under the Privacy Act 1988 during the reporting period.

Historical publications and information

The department continued to research and prepare publications on Australia's foreign and trade policy history. These publications are an important resource for scholars and also help to explain the department's functions and activities to the public.

In September 2003, the department hosted in Canberra the Seventh International Conference of Editors of Diplomatic Documents. The conference is hosted every two years by a country that publishes volumes of official diplomatic documents. The Seventh Conference was attended by delegations from Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States. As this was the first time that the conference had been held in the southern hemisphere, the department invited countries from Australia's immediate region to send observers. Observer delegations attended from China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. Delegates at the conference delivered presentations on the status and future plans of diplomatic documents editing programs in their respective countries.

In May 2004, Mr Downer approved the launch by the department of a new ad hoc series of short historical monographs, Australia and the world: The foreign affairs and trade files. The series will be geared to informing the general reader about events and issues from Australia's foreign affairs and trade history, drawing on information researched directly from the government's old working files. The first publication in the series, Australia and the origins of the Pacific Islands Forum, was written to commemorate the thirty-fifth meeting of the Forum, which took place in Apia in August 2004.

During the year in review we dealt with 112 requests for historical information from public and official researchers. In most cases we answered these using departmental material.

Historical research and access

Departmental records more than 30 years old are available for public access under the Archives Act 1983. The National Archives of Australia refers highly classified records back to the department for expert assessment of whether or not sensitivities relating to intelligence, security, defence or international relations remain in these records before public release.

Table 14 describes requests assessed by the department under the Act. During the year in review, we received 464 files from the National Archives to be assessed for public access. Of these, 299 files were completed, with 222 containing at least one exemption on national security or international relations grounds. We referred 12 files to other agencies (ASIO and the Department of Defence) and 12 requests to foreign governments (United Kingdom, United States and New Zealand) for clearance. We completed ten requests for clearance from foreign governments (United Kingdom and United States) and 12 requests from other agencies. There were no requests for internal review and no appeals against our decisions to the AAT. We granted one application for special or privileged access to records not available to the public.

TABLE 14. REQUESTS ASSESSED UNDER THE ARCHIVES ACT 1983
  2003–04 2002–03 2001–02
Files received 464 461 922
Total files assessed 375 546
Files completed 299 490 974
Number of folios assessed 81 643 107 591 190 562
Open access 77 198 313
Wholly or partly exempt 222 275 661
Subject to review 0 1 17
Subject to appeal 0 0 0

The decline in the number of folios and files completed for assessment compared to the previous year reflected a reduction in staff and completion of other access review work equivalent to a further 175 files (43 750). The decline in files completed in the two years since 2001–02 reflected a change in the method of collating statistics. Until and including 2001–02, file assessments were counted as completed when they were referred to another agency for advice. Since then, records have been counted as completed only when they have been returned and a decision taken by the department.

The department and the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office signed a revised memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the review and release of shared documents. The revised MOU provides guidelines that allow each government to release an historical shared document without notifying the other government if the document is considered no longer sensitive. This has expedited public access in both countries to non-sensitive documents and reduced the need for each country to refer records to the other.

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Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Annual Report 2003–2004
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