People who’ve been following our project for any length of time will be aware that our documentary film project weaves together natural, industrial and political history story threads. Choosing to take a dispassionate, investigative approach to our work relies on our ability to obtain and analyse hard, physical evidence. One of the means by which this evidence can be obtained is by making requests of Government and its agencies under the Freedom of Information Act 1991 (or similar legislation in other jurisdictions).
Anyone can do it, and I would urge any and all citizens to consider flexing their investigative muscles and give it a try.
The Freedom of Information Act 1991 is a little misleading by name, as requests in almost all circumstances have fees attached. Most require an upfront fee of $33 to be paid upon lodging. Further fees accumulate, based on the time researchers have to spend fulfilling your request. Then there are duplication costs for photocopying, scanning or digitisation of other media- video, photographs etc. Members of Parliament receive $1000 of credit for use with each FoI request, so it may be worth discussing your topic of interest with your local elected representative, should they wish to lodge on your behalf.
The types of documents which can be requested under the Act are far reaching, but results can be patchy. Politically sensitive matters may be withheld citing reasons such as commercial confidentiality or failure to pass a “public interest” test. If you’re unhappy with the first decision made following your request, you are able to lodge an internal review, and if you’re still not happy, you can call on the Ombudsman’s office for a final, external review.
The process can take months, but don’t let that inhibit you. Requesting a specific document which you know to exist can be an effective strategy. For example, a request might specify a Development Application and all associated documentation and correspondence for a certain project. Naming the specific departments, agencies and third parties involved is also helpful. A narrower, more defined search is likely to yield results faster and cost you less money.
After learning about the Freedom of Information Act 1991 via the experiences of others, we were delighted to discover that in 2013 a new “proactive disclosure” policy was implemented by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet in South Australia under the Weatherill government. Now Cabinet papers only 10 years old are being made available for the first time, where previously they were withheld for 20 years. It appears that the end of the Rann government has seen a more enlightened attitude emerge, inclined towards making the past political machinations of the state more accessible to the public.
As a result of the 2013 policy, Cabinet documents over ten years old (currently spanning the period 1988-2005) are now indexed at the Department of the Premier & Cabinet’s website. While the webpage is crudely designed (making searching something of a chore), the index itself is a great resource. Those papers which have already been requested by others under the Freedom of Information Act 1991 have also been made available as .PDF files, so in a minority of cases, you can view documents of interest with a simple click. For items that remain yet to be digitised, it’s a little harder… but not much. And the best part is, formal Freedom of Information requests for Cabinet papers ten years and older can be made entirely free of charge!
So where might you begin?
Well if there’s a particular subject that interests you, we would suggest using the website’s global search function. This will reveal a number of results, some of which are likely to be eligible cabinet papers. If you prefer to browse, the papers are listed by year and month, but take a long time to scroll through. The basic details of any of these items can then be easily copied and pasted into a spreadsheet to make it easy for you to later transcribe them into the official application form. The relevant forms are available at the bottom of this webpage, under the heading How to Apply for Cabinet Documents. These can be digitally or manually filled out, and emailed to DPC’s FoI unit.
We just lodged our first Freedom of Information requests drawing upon this resource today, and now eagerly anticipate the results.
The Department of the Premier and Cabinet is to be commended for their decision to waive the fees typical of requests made from other sources.