Annual Report 2005-2006

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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: Overview :: Document access :: Freedom of information :: Archival examination :: Privacy Act 1988 :: Historical publications and information :: Corporate records :: Outlook


The department's management of its responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 presented a growing challenge with an overall increase in applications—many seeking access to sensitive documents—and an increase in requests for internal reviews.

Our research and publications program continued to be valued by scholars and helped increase public understanding, both domestically and internationally, of the department's functions.

Document access

The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) extends the right to obtain access to information in the government's possession. Access is limited only by exemptions that protect essential public interests and the private and business affairs of persons and organisations about which government agencies may collect and hold information. Records more than 30 years old are available for public access under the Archives Act 1983, except for information that falls into an exempted category. Archival records are not subject to the Privacy Act 1988 and most exemptions in departmental records relate to intelligence, security, defence or international relations sensitivities.

Freedom of information

The department completed 109 applications, representing growth of 25 per cent over the previous period (see table 13). Increasingly, applications have involved a substantial volume of information on complex and sensitive topics. Where applications were not processed within the statutory deadline, this reflected the volume and complexity of the information requested.

Applications for internal review of rejected applications rose to 17, up from seven cases in 2004–05. Applicants were generally well informed about their rights under the FOI Act and pursued them comprehensively. Of the twelve reviews completed to date, the original decision was upheld for seven in their entirety. For four reviews, the decision was made to grant greater access in part. One review related to the remission of fees and charges, with the result that the decision to impose charges was overturned.

The department managed its FOI caseload proactively, liaising closely with applicants on the content and processing of their requests, including where there were delays in releasing documents. There was one complaint to the Commonwealth Ombudsman about the department's handling of an FOI application. In that case, the Commonwealth Ombudsman determined that there were no grounds for complaint. One appeal was lodged with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on a decision made by the department and the outcome is still pending.

To ensure the department continued to make sound determinations under the FOI Act, we provided specialised training for delegated decision-makers at the SES Band 1 and SES Band 2 levels on their responsibilities under the Act. The department met fully its obligations under sections 8 and 9 of the FOI Act. The department's statement in accordance with section 8 of the FOI Act is at Appendix 4.

Archival examination

Departmental records more than 30 years old are available for public access under the Archives Act 1983. Before public access, the National Archives of Australia (NAA) refers highly classified records back to the department for expert assessment regarding sensitivities relating to intelligence, security, defence or international relations.

Table 14 outlines requests received by the department under the Archives Act 1983. We received 675 files from NAA, foreign governments and other agencies to be assessed for public access. These included files requested by the public under section 40 of the Archives Act 1983 relating to Australia's bilateral relationship with Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Japan and Australian policy on Antarctica. We also cleared files for public release relating to the fall of Saigon as part of the inaugural R G Neale Lecture (see box below). We assessed 713 files, with 364 containing at least one exemption on national security or international relations grounds. We referred 34 files to other agencies (Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation and the Department of Defence) and 19 requests to foreign governments (United Kingdom, United States and Canada) for clearance. We completed 29 requests from foreign governments (United States, Canada and the United Kingdom) and 48 requests from other agencies.

We received two requests for reconsideration of access decisions under the Archives Act 1983 but no appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Privacy Act 1988

The department received three complaints in relation to the Privacy Act 1988. Two of these complaints are being dealt with by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and we are assisting the Office with its inquiries. In the third case, we are dealing directly with the complainant.

  2005–06 2004–05 2003–04
Requests for Information
Access granted in full 15 22 13
Access granted in part 50 21 27
Access refused 24 26 22
Requests transferred or withdrawn 20 18 16
Total 109 87 78
Requests subject to review or legal appeal
Subject to internal review (s.54) 17 7 9
Subject to AAT appeal (s.55) 1 0 3
Ombudsman 1 1 1


  2005–06 2004–05 2003–04
Files received 675 505 464
Total files assessed 713 574 375
Files completed 713 572 299
Number of folios assessed 139 013 103 470 81 643
Open access 337 301 77
Wholly or partly exempt 376 271 222
Subject to review 2 2 0
Subject to appeal 0 0 0

Historical publications and information

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

In December 2005, the department released the second publication in the series, Australia in the world: The Foreign Affairs and Trade files entitled 'Not a matter for negotiation': Australia's commitment to Malaysia 1961–1966. Prime Minister Howard launched the third in the series, Friendship and co-operation: the 1976 Basic Treaty between Australia and Japan on 15 June 2006 during the opening of the photo exhibition Partners in a New Vision—Australia and Japan across time as part of the Australia–Japan Year of Exchange (see sub-output 1.1.1 for more information).

We continued research for other publications, including document volumes on: Australia and Papua New Guinea in the first phase of the decolonisation of the territory in the 1960s; Australian women heads of mission; the history of the Australian passport; and Australia and the Cairns Group during the Uruguay Round trade negotiations. The latter publication will be launched during the 20th anniversary meeting of the Cairns Group to be hosted by Australia in late 2006.

At the Eighth Conference of Editors of Diplomatic Documents in Paris in October 2005, we led discussions on the department's emphasis on thematic rather than chronological documentary volumes, our new Australia in the World series, and our publication of paperback editions. We presented a paper about Australia and the Netherlands in the 1940s in a symposium organised in March 2006 by the Netherlands Archives to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the relations of the Netherlands with Australia.

We responded to 175 requests for historical information from public and official researchers. In most cases requests were answered using departmental material.

The R G Neale Lecture commemorates the history of Australian diplomacy

In May 2006 the department and the National Archives of Australia (NAA) jointly hosted the inaugural R G Neale Lecture as part of an annual series to mark the release of previously unavailable departmental records under the 30-year rule of the Archives Act 1983. These departmental documents will be released to the public each year at the time the R G Neale Lecture is delivered.

The Secretary, Mr Michael L'Estrange, launched the lecture series. He highlighted the importance the department attaches to bringing the historical record of Australia's foreign and trade policy into the public domain.

The R G Neale Lectures commemorate the contribution of the late Professor Robert George Neale to Australian scholarship, acknowledging his extensive efforts to make historical documents available for research. Professor Neale was the department's first editor of historical documents (1970–75) and the first Director-General of NAA. He oversaw the drafting of the Archives Act 1983—landmark legislation that established NAA on a statutory basis and outlined conditions for public access to and the disposal of Commonwealth records.

The inaugural lecture was delivered by Professor Peter Edwards AM, formerly the official historian of Australia's involvement in South-East Asian conflicts 1948–75. Professor Edwards' lecture on The Fall of Saigon, 1975, was presented the day after the 31st anniversary of the event.

Corporate records

Photo - See caption below for description
The occasional paper Friendship and co-operation: the 1976 Basic Treaty between Australia and Japan was launched at the High Court of Australia on 15 June 2006. Pictured at the event are (left to right): Michael Wood, Director, Japan Section; Tom Connor, Assistant Secretary, North East Asia Branch; Deborah Peterson, Executive Officer, Japan Section; Moreen Dee, Executive Officer, Historical Publications and Information Section (the author of the paper); and Peter Baxter, First Assistant Secretary North Asia Division. Photo: Courtesy of the Embassy of Japan
Enlarge image :: Photo gallery

The department continued to strengthen its recordkeeping practices in compliance with the recommendations of the Australian National Audit Office's 2003 report on Recordkeeping in Large Commonwealth Agencies and relevant legislation, and in accordance with the department's Strategic Plan for Records Management 2004–07.

Using our panel of service providers under the Records and Archival Services Panel 2004–07, we completed a scoping study for an Electronic Document and Records Management System (EDRMS) to determine the feasibility and scope of such a system for the department. This is a precursor to going to tender for the acquisition of EDRMS software that will enhance the department's electronic document management and retrieval capabilities.

We completed a review of the department's thesaurus and file management system and began work to upgrade the current record management system platform. Training of staff across the department in sound recordkeeping practices continued to be a focus. We introduced additional training courses for new employees.

We completed six sentencing and disposal projects in Canberra, two in state offices and four in overseas posts.


In 2006–07 the department will strengthen its capacity to meet obligations under the FOI Act through the transfer of FOI functions to a new Domestic Legal Branch and the recruitment of a FOI specialist officer. We will keep under review our FOI processes to ensure continuing adherence to best practice under the FOI Act.

The department will continue to research and publish on topics of enduring foreign and trade policy interest. These publications constitute an invaluable contribution to scholarship on the department's work over time. We will again co-host the annual R G Neale Lecture as part of our ongoing commitment to public awareness of departmental records.

Records management will continue to be a major challenge, in particular the adherence to compliance standards in a hybrid electronic and paper recordkeeping system. Rapid technological changes, combined with ongoing growth in the creation of documents, will require enhanced change management and training for staff.

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