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On this page: Freedom of Information :: Historical documents publications :: Historical research and access

Freedom of Information

The department met its obligations under the provisions of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 1982. This Act extends the right to the Australian community to obtain access to information held by the Commonwealth 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 collect and hold information.

The department processed 63 applications—seven more than in the previous year. Table 13 reflects the outcomes of applications. The small number of requests not met within the statutory deadlines generally reflected the need to retrieve documents from overseas. In these cases we kept applicants advised of progress.

Three complaints made to the Commonwealth Ombudsman about our handling of FOI cases were brought to our attention. The complaints were resolved to the satisfaction of the Commonwealth Ombudsman's Office.

One appeal against a departmental decision was made to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). No hearing date has yet been set. One appeal to the AAT from the 2000–01 financial year has yet to be heard.

See Appendix 5 for more information.

Table 13. Requests processed under the Freedom of Information Act 1982
  2002–03 2001–02 2000–01
Requests for information
Access granted in full 8 11 22
Access granted in part 19 25 41
Access refused *20 8 5
Requests transferred or withdrawn 16 12 5
Total 63 56 73
Requests subject to review or legal appeal
Subject to internal review (s.54) 5 4 7
In Administrative Appeals Tribunal (s.55) 1 1 2
Ombudsman 3 2 3
* Thirteen applications were refused on the grounds that no documents existed (s.24A); six applications were refused as all documents were subject to exemption under Part IV provisions; one application was refused on the grounds that it would substantially and unreasonably divert the resources of the agency (s.24(1)).

Privacy Act 1988

No complaints were received by the department during the reporting period in relation to the Privacy Act 1988. The case outstanding at the end of 2001–02 has been finalised. The Federal Privacy Commissioner's Office advised the department had not been in breach of the Privacy Act and the matter was closed.

Historical documents publications

The department continued to produce well-received material documenting Australia's foreign and trade policy history. These publications are an important resource for researchers and academics, as well as useful tools for the promotion of the department and its operations.

In October 2002, the Attorney-General Mr Williams launched, on Mr Downer's behalf, Australia and recognition of the People's Republic of China 1949–1972 to commemorate thirty years of diplomatic relations between Australia and China. This volume—part of the Documents on Australian foreign policy series developed by the department—was accompanied by the publication of Australia–China: A photographic record. Mr Williams and Mr Downer commented favourably on the publications, both of which have been disseminated widely in China.

In March 2003, the department and the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade published a joint collection of Australian and New Zealand documents titled The negotiation of the Australia New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement 1983 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the bilateral CER agreement. Mr Downer launched the publication at Old Parliament House in conjunction with a pictorial exhibition illustrating the agreement. A large group consisting of former ministers and officials involved in the negotiation of the CER agreement, members of parliament, academics, media representatives, business people and officials from other agencies commented favourably on Mr Downer's launch of the book and the exhibition.

In May 2003, Mr Downer launched Facing north: A century of Australian engagement with Asia: Volume 2 1970s to 2000 completing the department's two-volume project on Australia and Asia since 1901 that was part of the portfolio's contribution to the celebrations of the centenary of Australia's Federation. Mr Downer commended both volumes to a large audience consisting of representatives of Asian missions in Australia, academics, media representatives, and former senior ministers and officials involved in Australia's historic engagement with Asia. At the same time, Mr Downer launched a new online resource on the departmental website consisting of previously published volumes in the Documents on Australian foreign policy series. The website may be viewed at http://www.info.dfat.gov.au/historical and has been positively received by the media, researchers and academics. A link to the website has been placed on the official website of the Australian Historical Association and on the respective websites of the embassies in Washington and Tokyo and the high commission in London.

Mr Downer commissioned the department to prepare two further volumes in the Documents on Australian foreign policy series: one on the negotiation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and another on Australia and the Cairns Group. In addition to these volumes, work continued on three other volumes: Australia and the Colombo Plan, Australia and Malaysia, 1962–1966 and Australia and the independence of Papua New Guinea.

In collaboration with the Russian Embassy, we displayed an exhibition of historical images and documents marking 60 years of diplomatic relations with Russia in the atrium of the department's Canberra headquarters, the R G Casey Building, in October 2002. The exhibition was opened on 3 October by the Secretary, and the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Mr Alexander Losyukov. The exhibition also toured Russia.

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 for expert assessment of sensitivities relating to intelligence, security, defence or international relations before public release.

Table 14 describes requests assessed by the department under the Act. During the year in review, we assessed 546 files comprising 107 591 folios for public access, including 19 requests for clearance from foreign governments (United Kingdom and United States) and 37 requests from the Department of Defence. Of these, 490 file assessments were completed, 275 containing at least one exemption on national security or international relations grounds. We referred 56 files to other agencies (ASIO and the Department of Defence) and 80 requests to foreign governments (United Kingdom, United States and New Zealand) for clearance. There were no appeals against our decisions to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Table 14. Requests assessed under the Archives Act 1983
  2002–03 2001–02 2000–01
Files received 461 922 657
Total files assessed 546
Files completed 490 974 675
Number of folios assessed 107 591 190 562 136 109
Open access 198 313 182
Wholly or partly exempt 275 661 460
Subject to review 1 17 10
Subject to appeal 0 0 0

The decline in the number of files completed for assessment compared to the previous year reflected a reduction in staff and a change in the method of collating statistics. In previous years, file assessments were counted as completed when they were referred to another agency for advice. Now, records are counted as completed only when they are returned and a decision is taken by the department.

See Appendix 5 for more information.

During the year in review we dealt with 156 requests for historical and administrative information from public and official researchers. In most cases we answered these from departmental material. In some cases, inquiries were referred to other agencies. We also granted 17 applications for special or privileged access to records not available to the public.


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