Australian advocacy for transparency in World Health Organisation

Peter Timmins made this Freedom of Information request to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

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From: Peter Timmins

Delivered

Dear Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,
This is an application for documents created or received since Australia took a position on the Executive Board of the World Health Organisation in 2018 concerning the need for the organisation to be more independent and transparent, including briefs, reports, records of conversation, speeches or other documents sent to or sent from Australian representatives.

The request is prompted by the Minister's speech to the National Security College on 16 June where she referred to Australia's role in the WHO as an active and pragmatic voice, and to the importance of independence and transparency.

Yours faithfully,

Peter Timmins

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From: FOI
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

OFFICIAL
FOI Reference: LEX2118

Dear Mr Timmins

Re: Freedom of Information (FOI) Request

Thank you for your e-mail dated 18 June 2020 in which you seek access under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to:

“documents created or received since Australia took a position on the Executive Board of the World Health Organisation in 2018 concerning the need for the organisation to be more independent and transparent, including briefs, reports, records of conversation, speeches or other documents sent to or sent from Australian representatives.”

This e-mail sets out some information about how your request will be processed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Searches are now being undertaken in relevant areas of the Department for documents relevant to your request.

Scope of request:
If it emerges that the scope of your request is unclear or is too large for processing, the Department will contact you to discuss re-scoping the request.

Timeframe for receiving our decision:
We received your request on 18 June 2020, and the 30-day statutory period for processing your request commenced from the day after that date. You should therefore expect a decision from us by 20 July 2020. The period of 30 days may be extended in certain circumstances. We will advise you if any extension of time is required.

Charges:
Please note that the Department issues charges for processing FOI requests. We will advise you of these charges when we are in a position to estimate the resources required to process your request.

Timing of release:
As the subject matter of your request will require DFAT to upload any documents released to you to the Department’s FOI Disclosure Log, we take this opportunity to advise you that the Department’s policy is to upload documents to the disclosure log on the same day as the documents are released to you.

Exclusion of officials’ names and contact details:
It is the Department’s policy to withhold the mobile numbers of all government officials, and the names and contact details of government officials not in the Senior Executive Service (SES) or equivalent. If you require the mobile numbers of all government officials, or the names and contact details of non-SES officials, please let us know at [DFAT request email] so the decision-maker may consider; otherwise we will take it that you agree to that information being excluded from the scope of your request.

Personal Information:
If we need to consult with other people or organisations regarding your FOI request, we may need to disclose your personal information (e.g. your name). When we consult it may be apparent that you have made a request, even if we do not disclose your identity. Please let us know if you have any concerns in this regard. The Department’s privacy policy is available at dfat.gov.au/privacy.html.

Should you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact us by return e-mail at [DFAT request email].

Yours sincerely

DFAT FOI Team

Freedom of Information and Privacy Law Section
Legal Division | Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
DFAT.GOV.AU | Twitter | Facebook | Flickr | YouTube

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From: Peter Timmins

Delivered

Dear FOI,
Dear FOI,

Thank you for the acknowledgement.

Please note these responses to two matters raised:
. that the Department issues charges for processing FOI requests.
. the Department’s policy to withhold the names of non-SES officials.

Charges
The statement that 'the Department issues charges for processing requests' is a blanket statement that presumably applies to processing all requests.

Guidance issued by the Australian Information Commissioner and to which an agency must have regard states (Part 4) agencies may, if "an applicant requests access" decide to impose a charge or not impose a charge for the staff time and resources expended in processing an FOI request (s 8 of the Charges Regulations).

As the Guidance makes clear, there is no obligation to impose a charge.

As with any discretion, a decision to issue a charge or not issue a charge for processing the application must be undertaken fairly and reasonably, and as the guidance further stipulates requires consideration of the ‘lowest reasonable cost’ objective in s 3 of the act in deciding whether a charge is warranted.

In my submission, a charge for processing an application for documents that are relevant to a public assertion by the Minister about Australia's record of advocacy for a more independent and transparent WHO is not warranted.

The decision to issue charges for processing a request is separate from any later consideration of a contention by an applicant that a charge the agency may decide to issue be reduced or waived. (Guidance 4.19)

Names on non-SES officials
Names of officials of any rank are not excluded from the scope of the request.

The Departmental policy mentioned in the acknowledgment is inconsistent with Guidance issued by the Australian Information Commissioner (6.154)
"When considering whether it would be unreasonable to disclose the names of public servants, there is no basis under the FOI Act for agencies to start from the position that the classification level of a departmental officer determines whether his or her name would be unreasonable to disclose."

Any redaction of names of officials should be based on a claim for exemption.

Thank you.

Peter Timmins

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From: FOI
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

OFFICIAL
FOI Reference: LEX2118

Dear Mr Timmins

Re: Freedom of Information (FOI) Request

I am writing in regards to your email dated 18 June 2020 in which you seek access under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to:

“documents created or received since Australia took a position on the Executive Board of the World Health Organisation in 2018 concerning the need for the organisation to be more independent and transparent, including briefs, reports, records of conversation, speeches or other documents sent to or sent from Australian representatives.”

Preliminary enquiries to the relevant area of the department have found that this request more closely aligns with the portfolio responsibilities of the Department of Health. It is now open to you to withdraw your request and submit a new FOI request to the Department of Health.

Please let us know if you would like to withdraw your request by replying to this email by 12pm Friday, 3 July 2020.

Kind regards

DFAT FOI Team

Freedom of Information and Privacy Law Section
Legal Division | Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
DFAT.GOV.AU | Twitter | Facebook | Flickr | YouTube

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From: Peter Timmins

Delivered

Dear FOI,
I'm sure the suggestion made after preliminary enquiries to the relevant area of the department that I withdraw the application and make a fresh application to the Department of Health is meant to be helpful.

However given the remarks by Minister Payne to the National Security College on 16 June about the important role Australia has played in discussion about the WHO it would seem likely DFAT holds documents that may or may not be held by the Department of Health. Your message makes no mention of any such documents, or of any consultation with the Department of Health prior to making the suggestion about withdrawal.

The Guidance issued by the OAIC (3.57 and following) is that when an agency receives a request for documents some of which are in the possession of different agencies, Section 16 (3A) provides the agency may partially or wholly transfer the request that is then "notionally divided into different requests." Each agency "then has obligations to make their own response to the request in accordance with the Act."

Thank you for the suggestion but In the circumstances my request is not withdrawn.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Timmins

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