A legal expert has closed Australia's freedom of information regime after spending two years and more than $ 1,000 trying to shed light on Australia's massive lobbying effort to prevent the Great Barrier Reef from being listed as “at risk”.
In 2014-15, Australian government officials spent more than $ 100,000 visiting and lobbying members of Unesco's world heritage committee to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the “at risk” list.
A group of environmental lawyers from Australia and the US had found that the risks to the reef met the criteria for listing of such, but Australia's lobbying was ultimately successful.
The legal academic, Professor Reece Walters, of Deakin University, wanted to understand the extent to which Australia had gone in its taxpayer-funded campaign.
Walters submitted a freedom of information request in August 2016 for relevant correspondence between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Great Barrier Reef taskforce and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMPA).
Documents that had been so heavy “to make the information useless for any meaningful interpretation”.
“The application included meeting minutes – on each occasion the entire minutes are deleted, leaving only the agenda and day after meeting,” he said.
Walters asked the commissioner to review the case. GBRMPA argued that the information was very sensitive and would undermine its links with foreign governments and institutions if released.
He argued that the documents, if published publicly, would also potentially undermine ongoing negotiations with the committee regarding the status of the Great Barrier Reef in 2019-20.
Eventually, the information commissioner ordered the authority to disclose more – but far from it – the material to Walters. But Walters told Guardian Australia that the information was not something he originally wanted. Even if it were, the delay of two and a half years had been made virtually useless.
“Who is now interested in the ways in which the GBR was assessed by an international panel and how did the government collate or corrupt those particular members in any way?
“It's an old story, which cares? And that's part of the rebellion [of the FOI system], because if I had written this up when it was before Parliament, it could have had some intimidation. ”
The freedom of information system has long been criticized for its long delay and high rates of rejection. Australia Guardian revealed earlier this year that Freedom of Information objects were at their highest levels since records began in 2010-11 and that over 2,000 applications took three months longer than the statutory timetable for release.
Walters has extensive freedom of information experience in the United Kingdom, and said it was much more open and favorable to transparency than Australia.
He said his experience had caused him to fear those with less ability to engage with legal concepts and the ambiguities of Freedom of Information.
“I've been struggling for two and a half years,” said Walters. “What does that mean for people who don't have the legal skills, or the information about the system, or the ability to submit appeals?” T
In 2015, DFAT secretary Peter Varghese said that Parliament estimated that Australia had run a “whole government” campaign to stop the “at risk” list for the reef.
“We are running a major campaign to prevent a list of the Great Barrier Reef as being at risk,” he said at the time.
“A number of claims have been made about the management of the Great Barrier Reef and its vulnerability that is not really based and needs to be disproved.”