The International Access To Information Day is a worldwide movement that observes the public’s right to access government-held information. This year’s theme is ‘building trust through accountability’.
On a large scale, transparency of government information can save lives—just look at COVID-19 and how access to government information and verification of its trustworthiness has been crucial to combatting the virus.
On a smaller scale, as a small business owner, you may feel like you have little power against government decisions, and you might feel intimidated by government agencies. We want to remind you that you do have the power to question government decisions and to request access to government documents.
In this article, we’ll look at two crucial, but separate, things:
- How to get access to information about government decisions (i.e. finding out why the decision was made)
- How to actually challenge a government decision
What Are Our Information Access Rights In Australia?
Our right to access Commonwealth government information in Australia is laid out in our Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act).
The FOI Act covers things like:
- Your right to access documents held by Australian government ministers and agencies, such as:
- NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission
- Australian National Audit Office
- IP Australia
- Your right to request that the government amends information held about you
- The Australian government’s responsibility to release information proactively
If you want to access state-based information, each state has their own version of the FOI Act. For instance, in NSW there is the Government Information Public Access Act 2009, while in Western Australia there is the Freedom of Information Act 1992.
If you need information that isn’t publicly available—for instance, because it includes personal details about an individual—you can apply formally for this information.
State-based information might be useful for obtaining information on the following:
- State liquor and gaming regulators
- Other state regulators your business interacts with
- Local council decisions
- Fair trading (e.g. NSW Fair Trading)
- Legal Aid
- Local Government Grants Commission
- Courts and tribunals
What Does ‘Proactive Release Of Information’ Mean?
You might have noticed a lot of government department information, like stats and policies, is already available online. This is because access to information in Australia should be ‘proactive’.
This means the government should release as much information as possible and remove barriers to access, keeping costs minimal. Information that should be released proactively is information that is in the public interest, like statistics, data, and policy.
Through releasing this information to the public before waiting for it to be requested, access to information is even easier, faster and free.
How Access To Information Affects Your Small Business
So, we’ve now run through some examples of what government departments control what.
For example, the FOI Act governs Commonwealth government decisions. Decisions that might impact your business could be from ASIC, the ATO or IP Australia.
Here are some examples of Commonwealth government decisions that your business might want more information on:
- The ATO makes a decision around assessing your workplace for JobKeeper, or your debts, administering a garnishee order
- IP Australia rejects your application for a trade mark
- ASIC does not approve your business name or gives you a fine
You have a right to know about government decisions and the reasons behind. You don’t have to accept a government decision at face value: you have the power to question it! Plus, you have the right to find out what information the government holds about your decision.
How To Request Information
Under the FOI Act, you can request that a decision made about your business be sent to you. From there, you can ask for an internal review from the specific government agency that made the decision. This is usually the recommended first step.
If, after an internal review, you still can’t get access to government information, you can also contact the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner to ask that they review the decision to grant you access to information.
The FOI process can provide valuable insights into why a decision was made, and how you can go forward with that information. It could be that the decision maker made the wrong decision, or you may be satisfied with the decision after seeing more information. Regardless of the outcome, it’s important to know there is a process you can follow to access information.
How Do I Object To Decisions Made By Government Departments?
First, you may need to request information about the decision (see steps above). From there, you may want to challenge or object to the actual decision made, which is a different process.
Each government department will have its own procedures for challenging a decision. Generally, you should make an objection directly to the specific government agency that made the decision.
Keep in mind that there are time frames in which you need to make requests for information, or lodge objections to decisions. These differ for each department.
You have the right to request information from and object to decisions made by government departments!
As a business owner, many government decisions will have lasting impacts on your business. To get the best outcome for your business, it’s important that you’re assertive about your rights.
Feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 1800 730 617 for a free chat about your business’ legals
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