Transparency only shouted from opposition benches: Patrick

Independent Senator Rex Patrick speaks on his Forced Labour Bill in the Senate chamber in Canberra, Monday, August 23, 2021
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas


Former Senator Rex Patrick is on a mission to make freedom of information reform “sexy”.

You might not realise it, but the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act makes headlines all the time.

It’s led to the discovery of Australian weapons sales to countries whose militaries have been accused of war crimes, of dodgy grants and of public investment in controversial fossil fuel companies.

But chronic under-investment and government resistance to transparency are eroding the system – and with it, Australia’s democracy, according to former independent Senator for South Australia, Rex Patrick.

“Information is the currency of power in a democracy – and the government likes to have most of the power,” Patrick said on the latest episode of Follow the Money.

Patrick recently had a win in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, gaining access to Treasury modelling provided to the minister about the stage three tax cuts.

But it was a Pyrrhic victory, he said, as the process took so long that the information could no longer inform the public debate over the policy.

“It’s taken something in the order of 18 months – and that’s using the ‘fast track’ method.

“Delay is something governments can do to effectively make the currency of the information somewhat worthless.

“If you take an FoI decision that a department’s made – and normally they take between 30 and 60 days – and you appeal it to the Information Commissioner, almost certainly it’s going to take three to four years.”

Patrick was critical of what he described as inaction by both major parties in this area.

“My feeling is that…transparency is a word that’s only shouted from opposition benches.

A 2023 Australia Institute submission on the FoI system found that more than 900 reviews had been outstanding with the Commonwealth Office of the Australian Information Commissioner for more than 16 months.

Patrick called for the government to properly resource the FoI system and back public servants who release information under the Act.

“We absolutely have to fix it.

“It’s a core part of the fabric of our democracy, being able to watch over government and be involved in decision-making.

“My hope is that on my tombstone it says, ‘here’s the guy that made FoI sexy’.”

Follow the Money is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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