6 July 2012

The Freedom of Information Act was signed into law in the United States 46 years ago this week – symbolically on 4 July.  President Johnson commented at the time that “…this legislation springs from one of our most essential principles.  A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits. No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.”

Enacting the FOI took 20 years of manoeuvring by a coalition of enthusiasts backed by a number of prominent newspaper editors. It didn’t come naturally.  Moreover, although President Johnson proclaimed that he “…signed this measure with a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society in which the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded…” he had been an opponent of the Bill.

The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 was more or less the only “ right to know” legislation until the US development.  Australia New Zealand and Canada had laws in force by 1983, and approximately 90 other countries have followed suit.

There is no consistency in the extent to which jurisdictions have empowered their people to access official information. As in New Zealand many enable access to Executive information, but exclude any entitlement to information from the Legislature or the Judiciary – although some of these constraints are being eroded.   The surprise development in Australia two months ago, on one hand, when the Information Commissioner indicated that legislative agencies were not covered by the federal FOI Act is being countered on the other, by a Judicial Complaints Bill debated last week that precludes accessing information about judges who are the subject of formal complaints.