Annual Report 2008-2009

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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 ::Freedom of information :: Historical publications and information :: Archival examination :: Recordkeeping :: Outlook


The department has taken a broad-based approach to handling requests for information, and, where appropriate, provided information outside the formal processes of the Freedom of Information Act. We have focused on improving our Freedom of Information processes and supporting decision-makers in their making of decisions.

Our historical research and publications program completed preparation of several new publications covering seminal events and topics in Australian foreign and trade policy, and helping to improve public understanding of the department’s work and history.

We implemented strategic improvements in our records management systems and practices and launched the pilot of a new Electronic Document and Records Management System to move the department from paper-based to electronic filing.

Freedom of information

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 people about whom departments and statutory authorities collect and hold information (see Appendix 5).

We finalised 90 applications, 12 more than last financial year. Requests often involved a substantial volume of information and/or covered complex and sensitive topics. When access decisions were made outside the statutory deadline, it was often due to the volume or the sensitive nature of the documents. We actively managed the FOI caseload, liaising closely with applicants on the content and processing of the requests, especially when there were delays in decision-making.

We received five requests for internal review of access decisions and decisions were made on all those requests in 2008–09. Two appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) against access decisions and one appeal to the AAT against our decision to not remit the application fee for a request were lodged in 2008–09. The three appeals to the AAT were lodged by the same applicant.

One appeal to the AAT lodged in 2007–08 was withdrawn by the applicant. One appeal to the AAT lodged in 2007–08 is ongoing.

We provided training on our FOI obligations at induction programs and executive-level courses. We provided assistance on FOI processing, reporting and practice to portfolio bodies.

There were no applications received under section 48 of the FOI Act for amendment of records.

We met our obligations under sections 8 and 9 of the FOI Act, including the provision of statistical reports to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (see Appendix 5).

We also—when documents relevant to the request are in the possession of the department—process requests received in the offices of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Trade, the Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs and the Parliamentary Secretary for Trade.


  2008–09 2007–08 2006–07
Requests for information      
Access granted in full 7 14 23
Access granted in part 39 39 40
Access refused 12 6 21
Requests transferred or withdrawn 32 19 13
Total 90 78 97
Requests subject to review or legal appeal      
Requests for internal review (s.54) 5 4 7
Appeals lodged with the AAT (s.55) 3 2 0
Ombudsman 0 2 0

Historical publications and information

The department continued to research and publish in the field of Australian foreign policy. Our publications are an important resource for scholars and the general public and a valuable means of explaining the nature of the department’s work. This year we supplemented our longstanding Documents in Australian foreign policy series with publication of several narrative commemorative histories.

To coincide with the centenary celebrations for the visit of the United States’ ‘Great White Fleet’ to Australia in 1908, the Minister for Foreign Affairs launched the history, Great White Fleet to Coral Sea: Naval strategy and the development of Australia–United States relations, 1900–1945 at the University of Sydney in August 2008. Also in August, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Trade launched Emissaries of trade: A history of the Australian Trade Commissioner Service. Written by Emeritus Professor Boris Schedvin, this work was commissioned by Austrade and published by the department.

In November, the Minister for Foreign Affairs launched Every Assistance and Protection: A History of the Australian Passport, written and researched by the department’s Historical Publications and Information Section. The launch was held in conjunction with an exhibition in the R G Casey Building on the history of the passport (see output 2.1.2).

In October 2008, the department and the National Archives of Australia (NAA) jointly hosted the third annual R G Neale lecture at the NAA. This public lecture series focuses on foreign policy issues and utilises 30-year-old Commonwealth records released each year by the NAA. Professor Richard Cashman of the University of Technology, Sydney delivered the lecture on the subject ‘Australia’s role in the apartheid sports boycott in 1977’.

The department also organised a historical photographic exhibition in the R G Casey Building to commemorate the life of former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Dr Alan Renouf OBE. The then Secretary, Mr Michael L’Estrange AO, opened the exhibition in October 2008.

We responded to 149 requests for historical information from public and official inquirers.

Archival examination

Our archival records more than 30 years old are available to public researchers on application to the National Archives of Australia (NAA) under Section 40 of the Archives Act 1983. Prior to release to the public, the NAA refers classified records to the department for expert assessment regarding possible exemption in light of sensitivities relating to intelligence, security or international relations of the Commonwealth of Australia. We are also responsible for approving applications for Special or Official access to Commonwealth records under Section 56(2) of the Archives Act 1983.

Table 7 outlines requests received by the department under the Archives Act. We received 913 requests from the NAA, foreign governments and other agencies for archival records to be assessed for public release. These included files or documents requested by public researchers relating to:

We cleared records relating to specific projects such as research material in support of the Australian War Memorial’s Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, the 2008 R G Neale Lecture on ‘Australia’s role in the apartheid sports boycott in 1977’, documents requested under Special Access provisions, 1979 Cabinet Records due for public release in January 2010 under the 30-year rule and final clearance of records from the 1977 Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security.

Of the 913 requests received, 175 files or documents were the subject of a recommendation for at least one exemption on national security or international relations grounds, and 287 were released in full. We referred for clearance 112 files or documents to other agencies (Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Department of Defence) and 50 requests to foreign governments (United Kingdom, United States, Canada and New Zealand). We processed ten requests from foreign governments (United States and United Kingdom) and 22 requests from other agencies (the Department of Defence, Australian Secret Intelligence Service and the Office of National Assessments).


  2008–09 2007–08 2006–07
Number of requests received 913 499 635
Total requests assessed 462 445 636
Total completed 462 441 629
Number of folios assessed 69 118 84 080 113 913
Open access 287 132 318
Wholly or partly exempt 175 309 298
Subject to review 2 5 0
Subject to appeal 0 2 0


We began implementation of a new Strategic plan for DFAT records management 2008–11 which builds on enhancements to our recordkeeping capability completed under the previous strategic plan and the Record-keeping initiative 2006. The plan draws closely on recommendations of the 2007 Management Advisory Committee Report number 8, Note for file—A report on recordkeeping in the Australian Public Service.

Photo - See caption below for description
Staff at the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby at the launch of the pilot for the Electronic Document and Records Management System (EDRMS) on 23 June 2009. L-R: Local Area Network Administrator, Ms Mary Joseph, Senior Administration Officer, Mr David Poulter, Security Section Assistant, Ms Rose Mobutuna, and Assistant Secretary, Information Resources Branch, Ms Robyn Mudie.
Enlarge image :: Photo gallery

Seventy per cent of the 66 specific actions under the new strategic plan have been taken forward. There have been significant improvements in records management support, training, systems, compliance and self-assessment measures. Implementation of the plan is an important part of the department’s preparations to introduce electronic recordkeeping.

On 22 July 2008, the then Secretary officially launched the project to develop and implement a new Electronic Document and Records Management System (EDRMS) for the department. After a successful proof of concept involving 70 users in Canberra, we commenced the pilot phase in two divisions, the Sydney State Office, the Australian Embassy in Manila and the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby. The EDRMS can significantly increase our ability to manage our electronic records in compliance with legislative recordkeeping obligations.

We completed 20 records management projects. We conducted 12 sentencing and disposal projects: nine in Canberra, two at overseas posts and one in a state office. Other projects focused on enhancing records management systems in line with action items in the strategic plan. We also provided specialist recordkeeping registry services when requested by divisions. Following the creation of additional storage space for such records, we transferred over 300 linear metres of ‘Retain as National Archives’ files to the National Archives of Australia.

H V Evatt Library

In November 2008, the department’s H V Evatt Library was relocated to new premises in the R G Casey Building and our library holdings were returned from off-site storage. In recognition of the expanded role of the Library in the digital age, library services were re-launched under a new logo Smarter, faster information to you.

The relocation and rebranding of library services stemmed from an internal strategic review of the Library and its role during 2008. The review confirmed that there was an ongoing need for our library to provide authoritative, relevant and timely information to staff.

Library staff continued to develop and improve the range of library services. Personalised email alerts were sent to officers in Canberra and at posts on work topics. A new intranet site was launched to provide a comprehensive guide to library holdings, alert staff to new books and highlight journal articles of interest. New efficiencies such as the self-service check-out freed up library staff to spend more time responding to staff requests.


In 2009–10, we will continue to review our Freedom of Information (FOI) processes to ensure best practice in fulfilling our obligations under the FOI Act, including any new requirements flowing from the proposed reforms to the FOI and Archives Acts.

We will research and publish histories of significant events in foreign and trade policy. These publications make a valuable contribution to scholarship, with topics chosen to showcase the broad range of our work.

Implementation of the Strategic plan for DFAT records management 2008–11, which will lay the basis for effective operation of the EDRMS, will be a priority. The department will consider the lessons learnt from the EDRMS pilots before committing to the full rollout in 2010. We will give priority to comprehensive communications and training, crucial to the success of the system.

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