05 April 2019


From yesterday's Senate Estimates Committee Hansard regarding deficiencies in the administration of the FOI Act.
Senator URQUHART: Thank you. Mr Pratt, The Guardian have just released an article titled—and I have a copy—and you look like you have a copy, Mr Pratt. 
Mr Pratt: Thank you, Senator. 
Senator URQUHART: It is titled 'Government tries to censor itself over export of birds to convicted German fraudster'. The Guardian reported that the department has asked it to destroy documents handed over under FOI relating to the Australian government allowing for the export of 232 birds to a Mr Martin Guth, a man with multiple criminal convictions. I understand you have the article? 
Mr Pratt: Yes. 
The Guardian had reported
The Australian government has attempted to retrospectively censor critical information related to exports of rare and exotic birds to a German organisation headed by a convicted kidnapper, fraudster and extortionist.
Guardian Australia revealed late last year that Australia had permitted the export of 232 birds, some worth tens of thousands of dollars, to the Brandenburg-based Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) between 2015 and November 2018.
Conservation groups and federal politicians had repeatedly expressed concern about the group, which is headed by Martin Guth, a man with multiple criminal convictions.
The Guardian’s investigation relied on internal government documents secured through freedom of information laws, released in August.
Guardian Australia made subsequent freedom of information requests and received further documents in January. But the federal department of environment has now attempted to retrospectively redact parts of the documents, saying it accidentally released information it shouldn’t have.
Some of the inadvertently released information could “facilitate fraudulent export applications”, the department said. The department had also accidentally released “personal information, such as birth dates and name, and confidential business information”.
The department has asked Guardian Australia to destroy its copies of the documents, and not further disseminate the newly redacted details.
“While we understand that the FOI decisions have already been made, and that you are under no obligation to follow the department’s wishes, we kindly request that you either: destroy the documents that the department has previously released to you and instead, use the redacted documents attached to this letter; or otherwise ensure that the information in question … is not further disclosed or made publicly available,” the department said in a letter emailed to the Guardian on Wednesday, but dated last month.
The documents have not been published on the department’s online FOI disclosure log. 
The department’s stance suggests that other parties – journalists or conservation groups, for example – would be subject to the newly introduced redactions if they requested the same documents.
Hansard continues
Senator URQUHART: Is it common for the department to retrospectively redact FOI documents? 
Mr Pratt: No. 
Senator URQUHART: What powers does the department have to retrospectively redact FOI documents? 
Mr Pratt: I believe we have no powers of that sort. 
Senator URQUHART: The Guardian article also states that the department argues that retrospective redaction was needed because release of the information could facilitate fraudulent export applications. Given the concerns with the export of the 232 birds to begin with, how can the release of this information put other Australian fauna at further risk of illegal export? 
Ms Jonasson: Thank you for the question. We do have a copy of the letter that we provided to the journalist, which we would be happy to table. It might help the committee. The first point I would like to make is that we do acknowledge in the letter that Ms Cox has no obligation to do as we asked. It was a request we made of her. We also noted that we made this request really to protect the information from further disclosure, not to prevent her from making use of the documents for other purposes. To be quite frank, it was because of an administrative error of my team that this information was released. I was absolutely aware that, in having this letter provided to Ms Cox, an article such as this may appear in The Guardian. Nevertheless, I felt that, for full transparency and to ensure that due process was followed, we should provide such a letter to Ms Cox and provide her with the information and the reasoning why, absolutely noting that there was no legal obligation on her to do as we were kindly requesting. The reality is that more information than would have normally been provided has been provided. I trust that Ms Cox will use the information in an appropriate way. Our concern really is to ensure that, as we've said in the letter, permit numbers and those sorts of things are not used for people to create their own fraudulent permits, permit numbers and that sort of stuff. That's basically the reason we did it. I was aware that, in doing so, we would likely end up in The Guardian
CHAIR: Is it the wish of the committee that we have that letter tabled? 
Senator URQUHART: Yes. 
CHAIR: If we could have a copy of that, that would be great. Thanks, Ms Jonasson. 
Senator URQUHART: What Australian fauna are at risk of fraudulent export as a result of the release of this information? 
Ms Jonasson: It's actually because of the nature of the information. People may be able to create their own permit numbers and things like that. We really wanted to ensure that that wasn't possible, particularly given the concerns that have been raised recently around a number of other exports. We take the protection of our wildlife very seriously. We look to ensure that, where animals are exported, we contract that and we know where they have come from. 
Senator URQUHART: You mentioned that the release of the information was an administrative error. 
Ms Jonasson: Yes, it was. 
Senator URQUHART: What things have you put in place to ensure that this won't happen again? 
Ms Jonasson: The first thing I would say is that, since we became aware of this, we have done this letter to Ms Cox to ensure that we are on record as correcting that. In addition to that I've put in place additional checks in my team. There have been multiple FOI requests on this particular topic, as you would be aware. I've been working with our general counsel branch to ensure that we have the appropriate checks before information is released to make sure nothing of a personal nature or something that could support corrupt or fraudulent behaviour is released. I might hand over to my colleague Ms Tregurtha. 
Ms Tregurtha: In terms of responsibility for ensuring that delegates and others processing any department requests are aware of their obligations, we take an educative role and we also provide support in processing requests. I've also been through this error with my team as to what we could do better in the future. We're making sure that we do thoroughly review and assist to review those documents and also identify where we might need to do more enhanced consultation with third parties to pick up these sorts of things. 
Senator URQUHART: Have either set of documents—the newly redacted or the originals—been published on the department's FOI log? 
Ms Tregurtha: No we haven't done that yet. 
Senator URQUHART: Are you going to do that? 
Ms Tregurtha: Yes, we will do that. 
Senator URQUHART: Who are the third parties who have raised concerns about the information being made public? It is six months after the release of that information. Ms Jonasson: I don't have that information available here today. I'd have to take that on notice.