19 June 2012
The Australian Information Commissioner published a decision on Friday relating to a refusal to reduce the fee charged by the Treasury for the collation of draft copies of a public report. The central issue was not whether the information should be released but whether the fee set by the Treasury was appropriate.
The report related to carbon price policy. Although the final report was available, development of the underpinning policy was recognised as being a matter of interest to many. The Treasury considered its fee was appropriate as making the drafts available would not lead to better informed public debate.
The Information Commissioner restated the principle that release of documents disclosing government policy is important for accountability. There may be a public interest in the release of the draft of a document that has been finalised and published, particularly where it clarifies public controversy about the process of developing the final version of that document.
But that was not the case with this application. There was no suggestion that disclosure of the drafts might contribute to government accountability in a way that disclosure of the final report had not.
So the issue was whether there was a public interest reason to reduce the fee, bearing in mind that the final report has been made public. The Information Commissioner was not persuaded to waive or reduce the fee.
In New Zealand the situation regarding the release of draft documents is possibly more certain than in Australia. Release of a draft may in fact be prejudicial to government accountability. Guidance published in 2001 seems to remain the approach taken by the Ombudsmen.
Drafts are official information, and have no special status under the Official Information Act. However the appropriateness of directing the release of drafts must be case specific. “There is often good reason …to refuse requests for draft documents”. ”
“ If the end result of disclosure of drafts is to prejudice the quality of the reports or correspondence or advice being generated, then the wider public interest of effective government and administration would not be served. In assessing whether there is any countervailing public interest in disclosure of draft documents, it must be remembered that decision-makers are accountable for the advice they act upon and not for early drafts generated in preparation of that advice that they will often not have seen…”
“Usually it would only be in circumstances where disclosure of drafts would reveal some impropriety in process or practice that the public interest in release would outweigh valid interests in protecting information under the Act.”