Media release – Greg Melick AO SC, Chief Integrity Commissioner, 22 May 2024

Integrity Commission investigation uncovers questionable conduct around Right to Information processes

An investigation by the Integrity Commission has uncovered serious issues with Right to Information (RTI) processes at the Department of Health.

The investigation report tabled in Parliament today details how an employee misled a Deputy Secretary about how to respond to an RTI application. The employee then ‘reviewed’ the same decision that they had drafted. The investigation found that the employee’s focus on the identity of the applicant and the technical minutiae of the legislation did not comply with the intent and objects of the RTI Act.

The Integrity Commission has referred the matter back to the Department of Health, which has agreed to take immediate action. This includes undertaking a disciplinary process relating to the employee.

The investigation led to research into Tasmania’s RTI regime, which was found to be characterised by noncompliance with the letter and spirit of the law. Chief Commissioner Greg Melick said that there is an over-reliance on exemptions, unnecessary delays and other examples of poor practices in RTI administration. These deficiencies have the effect of denying the public access to information and exposing public sector organisations to misconduct risks.

“We know that poor practices in the administration of RTI laws erode public trust in government,” Chief Commissioner Melick said.

The research report explores systemic risks to access to information across the public sector, considers developments in other jurisdictions and offers recommendations that, if implemented, would enhance the administration of the RTI regime.

“The default response to a request for information should be to release it, unless a legitimate exemption applies,” Chief Commissioner Melick said.

“However, evidence shows that this is not how the scheme currently operates. With legislative reform supported by the Attorney-General and specialised education offered by the Ombudsman, real change can occur.

“This is an opportunity to improve processes and provide Tasmanians access to information that they have a right to.”

The full investigation and research reports – and 8 associated recommendations – are available on our website.

Statement – Roland Browne, lawyer, 22 May 2024

I was the complainant to the Integrity Commission in this matter.

This is a disgraceful episode, emblematic of a government culture that has no respect for the importance of a functioning and effective freedom of information system.

This culture undermines democracy.

My complaint was made in late 2021. TIC criminalises any discussion of the matter until its report is tabled in Parliament. Thus, this disgraceful action by the Department of Health’s RTI unit was not the subject of discussion in the course of the 2024 election. It should have been.

The delay in the investigation sees the principal actor (the employee) continue to assess RTI applications in the 2 ½ years since the complaint was made. One of those further applications was mine. I objected to his assessment of my RTI application, but was told he would do it anyway.

The failure by TIC to hold a public hearing is noteworthy; this is the very type of case that warranted a full examination, given the employee could not provide a cogent explanation for his refusal of the RTI application (p. 19).

Most significantly, there’s been no investigation into whether, and if so, how, the government fostered this state of affairs. The government cannot claim ignorance because this culture originates from the very top of the tree. The Minister for Health at the relevant time was the Hon. J Rockliff.

The TIC has concluded there has been misleading conduct, false statements known to have been incorrect, a conflict of interest and more by the employee. The government’s response will be monitored closely.

Another question is this: how many other RTI applications have been corrupted by this kind of misconduct?

Media release – Cassy O’Connor MP, Greens Justice spokesperson, 22 May 2024

Damning Integrity Commission Report on RTI Subversion

The Integrity Commission report into the Health Department’s handling of Right to Information requests lays bare the experience of many in the RTI system over the past decade in stark and damning detail.

The report finds the RTI officer in the Department of Health knowingly misled the applicant over the reasons for refusing a request, for an RTI initially lodged by the Greens. The report also finds the same RTI officer conducted an improper internal review of his own decision and, unsurprisingly, it was validated and the information requested continued to be withheld.

Critically, in its Report, the Integrity Commission recommends the disbanding of the Health Department’s internal ‘Right to Information Panel’ due to the serious associated misconduct risks.

The Greens have been belling the cat on RTI panels politicising RTI decisions and subverting lawful processes, and have been met with denial from the Premier and his ministers that anything is wrong.

The Premier – who was also Health Minister at the time the RTI request lodged by the Greens was being improperly handled – can no longer bury their heads in the sand and deny the significant cultural issues that persist in the RTI process.

A fish rots from the head. These internal panels were clearly set up to help the Liberal Government hide public information. There is no statutory reason they exist, and no other reason except running cover for government, holds any water.

Regrettably, the circumstances of this particular case are not unique.

The Greens’ experience is that RTI panels very much exist in other Departments. We have raised complaints with the Ombudsman that identified a similar panel in the then named DPIPWE, which was also operating in contravention of the Right to Information Act 2009.

This was several years ago, and the problem clearly persists.

The Premier must commit to abolishing all such panels wherever they exist, and to a broader review of the RTI culture which at times encourages working around the Act in order to delay or prevent the release of information to the public.

Tasmanians have right to know and they are currently too often being denied that right by the Rockliff government.