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DUTTON’S FREEDOM OF INFORMATION SECRETS EXPOSED

December 19, 2017

An investigation by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has exposed the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s culture of secrecy and its failure to meet the statutory processing times for Freedom of Information requests.

The investigation validates criticism by journalists, the community legal sector and visa applicants who have long been frustrated by the Department’s go-slow attitude to public disclosure.

Evidence stated it could take up to 242 days for DIBP to process an FOI request but Labor has experienced even longer waits of up to 426 days for simple requests – such as meeting minutes.

The OAIC’s investigation took place after a Departmental official accidentally emailed a journalist about the “freezing” of FOI requests relating to the Regional Processing Centre on Nauru in October 2016.

The investigation exposed systemic administrative failures in DIBP and found:

  • The Department’s conduct “shows a disregard for the statutory processing timeframes set out in the FOI Act and frustrated the FOI Section's attempts to process the relevant requests in a timely manner”;
  • At least four Nauru-related FOI requests were “put on hold” – directly contracting testimony by senior Departmental officials at Senate Estimates;
  • The Department has been aware of these issues for five years and has not taken steps to implement recommendations from a similar 2012 investigation; and
  • “Significant/Sensitive” FOI requests, like those made by journalists, are processed through the Minister’s Office and Senior Executive staff leading to delays in requests being finalised.

Proof the Immigration Minister’s office have contributed to delays in FOI requests being released raises serious questions about the role Dutton and his staff have played in decisions to release information to journalists and the public.

Dutton needs to come clean and reveal whether he or his staff members have ever asked the Department to go slow on FOI decisions or asked for certain information to be withheld.

Dutton and Secretary Pezzullo will soon have unprecedented powers over Australia’s domestic security agencies with the Department of Home Affairs and Australia cannot afford for these systemic administrative failures to continue on their watch.

The culture of secrecy must be eliminated from the top down and that begins with Dutton immediately adopting all seven recommendations from the Australian Information Commissioner.

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