FOI in Australia: Journalist’s request for access to information denied

In a three-to-two majority decision, the high court of Australia ruled on 6 September that the treasury department was right not to supply The Australian daily newspaper with the information about income tax which the newspaper’s freedom of information editor, Michael McKinnon, requested a few years ago under the 2002 Freedom of Information Act.

At the centre of the case was sensitive Treasury information relating to personal taxation bracket creep and the number of wealthy people claiming the first home buyer's grant.

According to Reporters Without Borders this means that the authorities are empowered under the access to information laws to reject a request from a news organisation if they consider it is against "the public interest." The treasury minister twice blocked McKinnon’s request for documents relating to tax policy.

The Australian Press Council said the high court’s decision would give the authorities a "fresh impetus to suppress information that is embarrassing or politically inconvenient." The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance said the existing legislation "provided several barriers for journalists seeking access to non-personal information."

The Council said the court tribunal failed to give adequate weight to the aims of the FOI Act in giving people the right to access government information. "The contention that the disclosure of information would mislead or confuse the public due to its complexity, one of the pillars of the government's case, suffers from legal paternalism and fails to appreciate the role of the press in informing the public on matters of public interest."

Greens leader Senator Brown argued that the FOI laws should be reformed in light of the court's decision: "Information is the currency of democracy. Beyond clear defence of national security, it is difficult to argue that ministers should be able to keep the public in the dark."

Call for overhaul of freedom of information laws after disappointing decision by High Court (Reporters Without Borders, 8 September 2006)

Freedom of information 'threatened' (, 6 September, 2006)