As mentioned in the ‘Clerk's review', the Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act) which was originally passed in 1982 was designed to provide access to Government information. The parliamentary departments were excluded from the Act and parliamentarians were also not covered.
Nonetheless, the parliamentary departments had observed the spirit of the provisions voluntarily where possible and generally complied with the small number of requests received for information of an administrative nature.
However, due to a revised legal interpretation of the FOI Act, the Information Commissioner determined that the explicit exclusion of the parliamentary departments no longer applied to the two chamber departments and the Department of Parliamentary Services. (The Parliamentary Budget Office, which was established as a parliamentary department during the reporting period, has been expressly exempted from the application of the FOI Act.)
On 9 May 2012, the Australian Information Commissioner amended the guidelines issued under s 93A of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to state that the Department of the House of Representatives, the Department of the Senate and the Department of Parliamentary Services were henceforth subject to the FOI Act. (Prior to this, the guidelines had stated that the FOI Act did not apply to the departments of the Parliament.)
Since the revised guidelines were issued, the Senate Department has dealt with requests that have been received in accordance with the provisions of the FOI Act. In particular, the department had received a total of six requests at 30 June, one of which had been finalised by the reporting date (and the remaining five were under consideration). A senior departmental officer also participated as a member of a Parliament House departmental working group to develop consistent approaches to matters such as publishing an information request register on the Parliament House website.
This unintended application of the FOI Act has presented a significant workload in handling requests and undertaking reporting requirements. The department welcomes a wider review of the Act that has been foreshadowed by the Government and which is expected to occur towards the end of calendar year 2012. This will present an opportunity for a considered review of the applicability of the Act to the parliamentary departments.