Northern Territory refusing one in four FOI requests – seven times Victoria's rate

Christopher Knaus
Buildings in Darwin. The Northern Territory is by far the most likely jurisdiction to block FOI requests. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Northern Territory government is refusing one in four freedom-of-information requests – a rate seven times higher than Victoria’s and eight times higher than Western Australia’s.

An analysis of state and territory FOI data shows the Northern Territory is by far the most likely jurisdiction to block requests for government documents. Last financial year, the NT government granted just 292 of the 900 FOI requests it finalised, and partially granted another 298.

It refused 246 FOI requests, or 27%. Victoria refused 3.89% and Western Australia 3.2%. It is also significantly higher than the commonwealth’s refusal rate of 17%, which is itself a record high. Data for other jurisdictions in 2017-18 is not yet available.

The year prior, the NT had by far the highest refusal rate (28%) of any jurisdiction. The next closest was Queensland at 20%. The commonwealth refused 10% of FOI requests in the same year.

The total volume of FOI requests received in the NT is low compared with the rest of the country, making the refusal rate more susceptible to change than larger jurisdictions. There can be legitimate reasons for refusing an FOI request, including that the documents are legally exempt or do not exist, or that the application itself is deficient.

But the NT’s refusal rate has now been above 20% for four years running, and experts believe there are deeper problems inhibiting the release of information.

Ken Parish, an NT-based legal academic at Charles Darwin University, said there was no obvious reason for the high refusal rate, given the territory’s FOI legislation is no more restrictive than other jurisdictions.

Parish believes the result may partly be a cultural problem within the NT public service. He also believes the NT’s status as the last Australian jurisdiction to introduce FOI may also have played a role.

Parish said the territory had a huge public-sector workforce, relative to other states and territories. The workforce was also top-heavy, he said, with almost half the workforce being made up of managerial or administrative staff.

“I hypothesise that what we’ve got therefore is a very large public service culture.” He said the public service was dominated by managers who were “very much politicised because of the senior executive service and a large and still-growing set of ministerial advisers”.

“It may well be that the rate of non-response to FOI requests is in one sense a part of that,” he said.

The territory’s large public-sector workforce also ought to mean refusing FOI requests on practical grounds was less likely, he said.

Guardian Australia approached the office of the NT chief minister, Michael Gunner, for comment, but did not receive a response.

The Gunner government made numerous promises to improve transparency and accountability before taking office in 2016. It promised to set up an integrity commission, which it has done, reform political donations and disclose politicians’ registrable interests.