Tasmania trashed as ‘Australia’s most secretive state’

Callum Godde |

Tasmania’s restrictive freedom of information system creates problems for environmental campaigners.
Tasmania’s restrictive freedom of information system creates problems for environmental campaigners.

Tasmania’s freedom of information system has been branded the most secretive in the nation, featuring the highest rate of refusals and skyrocketing review wait times.

An Environmental Defenders Office report has shown Tasmanians are more likely to have their freedom of information applications refused than people elsewhere in Australia.

In 2018/19, Tasmania’s public authorities refused access to any information in 30 per cent of decisions compared to 16 per cent in Queensland, the jurisdiction with the next-highest rate.

Victoria and the Northern Territory had the lowest rates of freedom of information application denials at four per cent. 

The 60-page report, published on Wednesday, also took aim at Tasmania over its disappointing record on providing information within statutory timeframes.

“In 2020/21, it was the second-worst jurisdiction in Australia for making decisions on information requests on time and it has consistently been in the bottom three jurisdictions in this respect since 2014,” the report said.

At least 70 per cent of Tasmania’s right to information decisions had been overturned by the state ombudsman, in full or in part, across four of the past five reporting years.

On average, Tasmanians waited 987 days to have refused applications reviewed in 2021/22, up from 230 days in 2016/17.

That meant that by the time the information was released, it was often too old to be of use.

There had been a linear rise in external review applications filed each reporting period since 2012 but no marked change in the number of concluded reviews, leading to a growing backlog.

Almost half the time it took the ombudsman’s office to complete an external review was due to it being stalled in a draft stage.

“This suggests that more senior staff are needed by the Tasmanian ombudsman to ensure that reviews can be completed in a timely manner,” the report said.

The state government’s secrecy had serious implications in the environmental law realm, report author and the community legal centre’s Tasmanian managing lawyer Claire Bookless said.

“Successive governments in Tasmania have denied or delayed access to information that citizens need to participate in environmental decision-making, which is an essential part of any healthy democracy,” she said.

“The tendency towards secrecy occurs particularly when the information may be embarrassing for the government or the industries it is supposed to regulate.”

Twelve reforms were recommended to change government culture, limit reasons for withholding information, improve initial assessments, reduce waiting times and enhance transparency and efficiency.

The Tasmanian government has been contacted for comment.