The audit report of multilateral institutions
From: Peter Timmins
Dear Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,
This is an application for a copy of the audit report on Australia's engagement in key multilateral institutions mentioned and summarised in the speech by the Minister to the National Security College on 16 June.
Please consider this application as a request for Administrative Access which in the circumstances facing agencies at present, can provide a quicker, more flexible and inexpensive alternative to providing access to government information.
Should this not prove possible-please provide reasons-it is an application under the Freedom of information Act.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
FOI Reference: LEX2125
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:
“a copy of the audit report on Australia's engagement in key multilateral institutions mentioned and summarised in the speech by the Minister to the National Security College on 16 June.”
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.
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.
Should you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact us by return e-mail at [DFAT request email].
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
From: Peter Timmins
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.
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 one clearly identified document, the audit report on Australia's engagement in key multilateral institutions, 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
While it is unlikely that any such names appear in the document sought, 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.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
FOI Reference: LEX2125
Dear Mr Timmins
Please see attached the charges letter in relation to your FOI request.
Please note that the processing period to assess your request is put on hold until we receive your payment of the deposit/payment in full of the charge.
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
From: Peter Timmins
Thank you for the message providing your estimate of charges and requesting payment of the deposit.
The charges for processing are not broken down. Presumably little if any time is involved in searching for and identifying the one document requested- the Audit of Australia's engagement in key multilateral institutions as described by the Minister in her speech to the National Security College on 16 June.
The decision to impose a charge is a rejection of my submission that you exercise the discretion conferred by the legislation and not charge in this instance.
No reasons are given.
These are difficult times.
Not charging would save time and the costs associated with collecting a deposit of less than $30 and the estimated balance of $100 down the track. And dare I say paying it back if you doin’t meet the statutory deadline-no offence.
Public interest considerations would be relevant to the exercise of discretion this way as well.
A similar reduced cost would result if the application had been processed as an Administrative Access request which hasn’t been mentioned either since I raised this possibility initially.
The thought was this might be beneficial all round in current circumstance. Administrative Access is not mentioned on the DFAT website despite the urging and encouragement from the Information Commissioner for agencies to provide such a mechanism where practicable https://www.oaic.gov.au/freedom-of-infor...
However moving on following the decision to charge, the act provides me the opportunity to seek a reduction or waiver-more of your time/cost I’m afraid-see above.
Financial hardship and public interest in giving of access are grounds specifically mentioned in Section 29(5) but the section makes it clear the agency is not limited to those matters in determining whether or not to reduce or not impose the charge.
I’m unsure whether this is the basis for the invitation on the DFAT website under Charges for applicants seeking a reduction or waiver to send "a copy of your current Health Care Card.”
I hold a Commonwealth Seniors Heath Card and will send a copy by separate email.
Maybe that’s enough for you to waive the charge.
Thanks, if so.
But in the event you want more and bearing in mind the remarks and decision of the Information Commissioner in Emmanuel Freudenthal and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Freedom of information)  AICmr 15 (29 April 2019), and the former Commissioner in Australian Associated Press Pty Ltd and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Freedom of information)  AICmr 131, I submit the following.
Financial hardship- what can you say? Who isn’t experiencing financial hardship at the moment?
As a self funded retiree my super and savings have taken a hammering, no worse than many or most but I won’t make a special case out of that.
There is in any event a strong general public interest in giving access to the document, given what the Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs have said recently about foreign policy, Australia’s participation in international organisations and the audit.
Giving of access to the document would help inform the community of the Government’s conduct of international affairs, contribute to debate on a matters of public importance, enable scrutiny of performance in the achievement of government policies and goals.
Without access to the document I can’t say with certainty what it contains but I expect it provides information about the overall cost of Australian participation in multilateral institutions, information not readily available elsewhere. It's likely a sizeable sum-Australia contributed $62 million alone to the regular budget of the UN in January.
There is a public interest in transparency and accountability in the use of public funds.
As far as I am aware the speeches by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs contain the only information available about the audit.Both have emphasised publicly why the underlying issue is of major significance in the conduct of foreign policy.
The Prime Minister in his speech to the Lowy institute on 3 October 2019 referred to the challenges that arise in "living in a world in transition”, that "we’ve not been as involved as we could be” in some international organisations, Australia "cannot afford to leave it to others to set the standards that will shape our global economy”, and that he had tasked DFAT with preparing "a comprehensive audit of global institutions and rule-making processes where we have the greatest stake.”
The Minister on 16 June provided some information about the audit: that it "took stock of where and why Australia is engaging, and how we can best target our efforts to support our interests. It affirmed that multilateral organisations, especially international standard-setting bodies, create rules that are vital to Australia's security, interests, values and prosperity. Those bodies regulate international cooperation in key sectors of our economy including civil aviation, maritime transport, intellectual property, telecommunications, agriculture. They promote universal values and play critical roles in responding to emerging global challenges, from the regulation of cyber security and maintaining a peaceful outer space, to outbreaks of Ebola and COVID-19.”
I could quote from the speech at length- but you have it available to you anyway- about why the government attaches importance to multilateralism: the audit "recognised the pressure these bodies are under, and that at times, their performance has struggled to deliver on their agreed mandates”, and that notwithstanding "the limitations identified by the audit” "Australia's interests are not served by stepping away and leaving others to shape global order for us.”
As the Minister concluded on this topic:
"Australia will continue to work to ensure global institutions are fit-for-purpose, relevant, contemporary, accountable to member states, free from undue influence, and have an appropriately strong focus on the Indo-Pacific. We will continue to support reform efforts in the United Nations and its agencies to improve transparency, accountability and effectiveness. This is foreign policy designed to use Australian influence and agency to shape a safer world, and to make us safer at home. We will target our efforts to preserve three fundamental parts of the multilateral system:the rules that protect sovereignty, preserve peace, and curb excessive use of power, and enable international trade and investment, the international standards related to health and pandemics, to transport, telecommunications and other issues that underpin the global economy, and which will be vital to a post-COVID-19 economic recovery and thirdly, the norms that underpin universal human rights, gender equality and the rule of law.
Moreover, we will work to ensure that the development of new rules and norms to address emerging challenges is consistent with enduring values and principles."
Suffice to say all this sounds of utmost importance to national interests, interests best served by transparency and accountability and public engagement in pursuing and protecting those interests.
I look forward to hearing from you.