In Queensland anyone can access government held information under the Right to Information Act 2009 (Qld) (the RTI Act). The RTI Act replaced the Freedom of Information Act 1992 (Qld) and is intended to place a greater emphasis on the openness and transparency of government held information.
The RTI Act places a pro-disclosure bias on decision makers which means that if the factors that favour disclosure and factors that favour non-disclosure are equally weighted then decision makers must exercise their discretion in favour of disclosure.
The legislation is an important cornerstone of democracy with the aims of building a stronger and healthier representative government with greater scrutiny of decision making and public spending with people having the opportunity to participate more fully in the government process by being able to request documents.
The Solomon Report, which recommended the drafting of the RTI Act in Queensland, also recommended a push model for government transparency. This means that government agencies and public authorities will publish as much information as possible on a proactive basis without the requirement to wait for formal RTI request applications to be received.
It is best to contact the RTI section of the relevant government department or agency first and see whether the information you seek is something which can be released administratively to you without the need for a formal RTI request.
All agencies which are subject to the RTI Act should have a publication scheme accessible on their website which contains an outline of the categories of information they hold and which is freely available. In addition, some agencies may also have a disclosure log which shows previous RTI applications those which were disclosed that did not contain personal information.
When does the RTI Act apply?
The RTI Act applies to governmental organisations defined as agencies. Only those organisations that are defined as agencies are subject to the RTI Act and the provisions relating to Freedom of Information.
Section 14 of the RTI Act includes the following types of organisations as agencies for the purposes of Freedom of Information:
- Government departments (such as Transport and Main Roads, Health, Education, Justice and Attorney-General);
- Local governments (including shires and city councils such as the Logan City Council and Banana Shire Council);
- Public authorities (including bodies established under an Act such as the University of Queensland); and
- Government owned corporations and their subsidiaries (such as Queensland Super).
Although the definition of agencies includes most of the public sector there are some notable exceptions. The following entities are not subject to the RTI Act:
- The Governor of Queensland;
- The Queensland Parliament and the Parliamentary Service;
- Commissions of Inquiry issued by the Governor in Council;
- Parents and citizens associations;
- Grammar schools under the Grammar Schools Act 1975; and
- Courts and Tribunals.
What kind of information can be accessed?
The information which can be access from agencies are included in documents. The RTI Act defines documents as anything which is recorded that is in the control or possession of an agency. This definition includes marks, figures, symbols, perforations, and material from which sounds, images and messages are capable of being produced. For instance, documents include not just paper but video recordings, emails, CCTV, photos, maps, plans, metadata and audio recordings.
Where the information requested relates only to the individual making the application then the application can be made under the Information Privacy Act 2009 (Qld) which mirrors the provisions of the RTI Act. When the information sought is a mix of both personal and non-personal information, then an application should be made under the RTI Act.
Popular requests for information include the request for documents around why a particular decision was made or not made, how much was spent on a particular project, how much funding was given to a particular contracted service provider, and what action was taken in relation to a particular complaint or allegation. It is important to note that the RTI process is about accessing documents and may not be the best process to use if you are looking to get an answer to a specific question.
How is an application made?
There is an online Right to Information Act and Information Privacy Act application form for applications to be made electronically. If any personal information is being sought then evidence of identity must also be supplied with the application form.
When the application relates to a mixture of personal and non-personal information or is wholly in relation to non-personal information, an application fee must be paid. Currently the fee is $46.40, however the application fee increases slightly every financial year. If the request relates to a large amount of documents which will likely take more than five hours to process then additional charges may be payable.
Why are there limits on what can be accessed?
The Queensland Government recognises that whilst openness and transparency are important, there are circumstances in which it is not in the public interest to disclose certain types of information.
There are two types of exemptions where information will not be disclosed:
- Exempt information – such as information relating to national security interests, law enforcement procedure, legal professional privilege and where the disclosure would be an actionable breach of confidence; and
- Public interest – where disclosure is likely to prejudice the protection of an individual’s right to privacy or disclosure would prejudice business or commercial interests.
An agency has the authority to refuse an application where the request relates to such a volume of information that to process the agency’s resources would be unreasonably diverted. The agency can also refuse to deal with a new application where a previous application for the same documents has already been made.
What happens if the request is denied?
If you have made an application under the RTI Act and you are not happy with the outcome, then you may seek a review of the decision.
The options include:
- An internal review which is conducted within the agency by a more senior officer than the original decision maker; or
- An external review at Queensland’s Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) which is the independent review body for Freedom of Information. If you have had an internal review and you are still dissatisfied, then you can also then seek an external review of the decision at the OIC
Both review options are free of charge.