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COUNCIL CULTURE CONTINUES TO HIDE THE TRUTH


The Local Government Act 2020, heralded by many as a step in the right direction for public transparency, was implemented almost 3 years ago.

The Minister at the time, Adem Somyurek MP, and the prior Minister Natalie Hutchins MP, claimed that this was a change for the public. The claims were that this new Act was a Principles based approach and that there would be far more public transparency.

We conducted a review and found that the majority of Councils are heavy-handed and incompetent in applying freedom of information laws.

We conducted a review of every refused FOI decision that Victorians have appealed to the Victorian Information Commissioner. (OVIC).

The LG Act of 2020 states the following requirement of all Vic Councils:

  1. your Council’s decision making processes must be transparent, except when the Council is dealing with information that is confidential by virtue of the LG Act or any other Act;

  2. Your Council’s information must be publicly available unless:

  • the information is confidential by virtue of the LG Act or any other Act; or

  • public availability of the information would be contrary to the public interest;

  • Your Council’s information must be clear, capable of being understood, and accessible to members of your community; and

  • public awareness of the availability of your Council’s information must be facilitated.

This means that all Victorians have a right to seek information relating to Council, so long as it does not constitute Confidential information.

We are aware of 1 council taking the right approach to this matter, Frankston Council.

Frankston Council has introduced a transparency HUB that uploads a lot of council information in an easily accessible location. Home Page — Frankston Transparency Hub

This is an open-source data hub that really sets its transparency apart from other councils.


So back to Freedom of information. We reviewed every decision (attached to the references in this article) and found that in the last 4 years, there were 77 appeals to OVIC where a council refused information and the applicant sought a review because they did not agree with the decision.

A staggering 73% of reviews found that Councils had not applied the Freedom of Information Act properly and that documents should have been released. These reviews were conducted by the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) and the findings are alarming.

It is clear from reading every single decision that our Councils have not grasped the shift in the Local Government Act 2020, that transparency is the underlying principle Councils need to adopt.

We have seen expense scandals, hiring scandals, and a host of other issues uncovered in recent times when members of the public use FOI to gain access to information. Having read many experiences of the FOI process, some where Councillors have sought information from their own Councils, it is interesting the lengths that Council CEOs and executives are prepared to go to in denying access and suppressing information.

What other themes did we find?


o Councils struggle to release information in parts when some of the information is confidential.

o Councils refuse information regularly without basis.

o Councils appear to lack expertise in Freedom of information staff.

o Most Councils default position is to deny information where possible.


We are also aware of examples where councils will fight to the very day of a VCAT hearing to refuse access to information, only to instruct legal representatives to agree to release some information to settle (not usually the information in its entirety).

There is no doubt that confidential information will always be refused and permitted to be, but the use of lawyers and consultants for the sake of it flies in the face of the LG ACT purpose.


The very fact that Councillors are forced to FOI information that they seek access to says something is still very wrong in Local Councils and their approach to transparency.


What was evident from the review was that Council performance in this space has declined since the 2020 Act was implemented.

Prior to the 2020 Act, councils were having their decisions overturned by about 62%, we have seen this increase to 73% under the new Act.

That is deeply alarming. An Act that was designed to make Councils more “Transparent” has seen a significant shift away from transparency.


Perhaps the only way to force transparency in a sector hell-bent on avoiding it is to legislate it. A “principles-based Act” simply doesn’t work.


What we need is specific and explicit rules forced upon councils and fast.

There is no higher standard required in transparency than when dealing with public money.


Perhaps it is the embedded culture of councils to always seek to hide, minimize, suppress, and redact every word it can. In much of my dealings with senior staff, there continues to be a culture of misleading conduct, that somehow the truth is to be avoided always.


That genuinely makes me very sad.


What is it that they have to hide?


If you would like more information on Freedom of Information requests please go to our FOI page.





FOI Summary
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