Last updated 1 September 2016
The Commonwealth legislation governing access to information is the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) (Freedom of Information Act). It applies to federal government agencies and ministers.
The Freedom of Information Act creates a:
- right of access to documents
- right to request the amendment of records containing personal information that is inaccurate, incomplete, out of date or misleading
- presumption of openness and maximum disclosure.
The Queensland legislation is the Right to Information Act 2009 (Qld) (Right to Information Act) and the Information Privacy Act 2009 (Qld) (Information Privacy Act). The Right to Information Act and the Information Privacy Act have different functions. The Right to Information Act creates a right of access to documents, and the Information Privacy Act provides for a right to request the amendment of records containing personal information that is inaccurate, incomplete, out of date or misleading. Both Acts apply to Queensland government ministers and agencies. The Right to Information Act also applies to all Queensland local governments and to corporations owned by the Queensland government or Queensland local governments.
Other similar legislation
There are two other kinds of legislation that complement access to information legislation.
Archives legislation regulates the retention and storage in special places (federal and state archives) of official public records, especially material of historical value. Archives legislation establishes a system of public access to these records. Commonwealth records are regulated by the Archives Act 1983 (Cth), and Queensland records are regulated by the Public Records Act 2002 (Qld).
Privacy legislation establishes a system to protect documents containing information about the private or personal affairs of individuals.
At the federal level, the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (Privacy Act) establishes a set of information privacy principles (IPPs) and a system for investigating complaints about violations of privacy. The Privacy Act applies to Commonwealth government agencies, private sector credit reporting agencies holding personal credit information and private sector businesses of a certain size.
In Queensland, the Information Privacy Act also has a broader privacy protection function. The Information Privacy Act also establishes the IPPs and a system for investigating complaints about violations of privacy.
The privacy protections provided by the Information Privacy Act apply to Queensland government ministers and agencies including government departments and public authorities. However, they do not apply to government owned corporations (sch 2 pt 1 Information Privacy Act).
Publication of information by government agencies
Access to information legislation requires government agencies to publish and make publicly available certain information that explains the functions, structure and processes of the agency. This requirement is quite separate from an agency’s obligation to respond to a right to information request from a member of the public.
Commonwealth government agencies must publish information statements that set out an agency’s functions and the kinds of documents it has available (s 8 Freedom of Information Act). These statements must be updated annually. Queensland government agencies must adopt a publication scheme (s 21 Right to Information Act) that sets out the kinds of information that an agency has available and how it is available (e.g. for inspection or for purchase either for a fee or free of charge).
Government agencies are also required to publish any policy documents they create. Policy documents may include manuals, interpretations, rules, guidelines, practices or precedents. For example, Centrelink makes available the manuals used by its officers when making a decision about a person’s eligibility for a pension or other entitlement. Members of the public have a right to inspect these documents at no charge, but obtaining a copy of these documents may involve a fee.
Office of the Information Commissioner
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (Commonwealth) and the Office of the Information Commissioner (Queensland) are independent government agencies responsible for functions relating to access to information, privacy and government information policy. At both the federal and state level, information commissioners review decisions made by other government agencies under access to information and privacy legislation, and also deal with enquiries and complaints. Within the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, freedom of information, privacy and information policy are integrated in a single office.