Access to information legislation provides every person with a legally enforceable right to access certain government documents. Applicants do not need any special interest or reason for requesting access to government-held documents.

A person cannot use an access to information request as a method of compelling a government agency to simply answer questions or provide them with information that it does not keep in documentary form. The definition of ‘document’ in both Commonwealth and state legislation is broad and includes:

  • written documents
  • computer discs
  • video tapes
  • photographs
  • maps.

The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) (Freedom of Information Act) and the Right to Information Act 2009 (Qld) (Right to Information Act) both apply to documents in the possession of the agency, regardless of whether the documents were created in the agency or received by it (s 4 Freedom of Information Act, s 12 Right to Information Act). The Acts therefore apply to documents received from third parties, including state and foreign governments, and documents the agency may have downloaded from an external website.

To what bodies does access to information legislation apply?

The Freedom of Information Act applies to federal ministers, government departments and agencies.

The Right to Information Act applies to Queensland ministers, government departments, local governments, public authorities and government-owned corporations or their subsidiaries.

Immunities from access to information

Some government agencies have total or partial immunity from access to information law.

For example, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation or the Office of National Assessments (s 7 Freedom of Information Act) have total immunity. The Right to Information Act does not apply to the Governor of Queensland (sch 2 Right to Information Act).

Some government agencies have partial immunity. This means that access to information legislation only applies to certain documents or functions of the agency. Partial immunities under the Freedom of Information Act often relate to documents relevant to the commercial activities of particular bodies. For example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is exempt in relation to its program material and its datacasting content, and the Australian Postal Corporation is exempt for documents relating to its commercial activities. One example of a partial immunity under the Right to Information Act is the ‘borrowing, liability and asset management related functions’ of the Queensland Treasury Corporation to which the legislation does not apply.