$24k NBN FOI sparks calls for reform

The Greens have described the government's proposed $24,000 or more fee for processing Shadow Communications Minister Nick Minchin's broadband Freedom of Information (FOI) request as ridiculous.

The Greens have described the government's proposed $24,000 or more fee for processing Shadow Communications Minister Nick Minchin's broadband Freedom of Information (FOI) request as ridiculous.

"It is a ridiculous proposition that Senator Minchin should pay $24,000 for the information he has requested. This is a prime example of how the Freedom of Information system in Australia is broken and in need of reform," Greens Senator Scott Ludlam told ZDNet.com.au by email.

Under current FOI laws, processing fees may be waived if the minister of the relevant department or the department itself considers the information in the public's interest. The fee can also be waived if it is likely to cause financial hardship to the person requesting the information. However, on both counts, the waiver was denied in Minchin's case.

The $24,000 price tag was dominated by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy fees, which claimed that to provide the documents Minchin had asked for, it would charge at minimum $20,090.42. The fee included 946 hours of "decision-making time" at $20 per hour, totalling $18,920; 72 hours document search and retrieval time estimated to cost $1078; and 937 copies to be charged at $93.70.

Other departments that proposed the remaining fees included Treasury, Prime Minister and Cabinet and Finance and Deregulation.

The documents Minchin was hoping to access contain advice from the expert panel and Australian Competition and Consumer Commission relating to the government's initial $4.7 billion National Broadband Network tender process, which was terminated in early April due to a lack of suitable proposals. Also on the list was a "short secret letter" from the panel, which was supposed to outline a way forward following the government's decision to ditch the initial proposal.

Ludlam said he was looking forward to debating FOI reform when the government brings it before the senate "to eliminate these kinds of deliberate manipulations of the system".

iiNet managing director Michael Malone, who had offered to pay for a previous FOI request with a narrower scope, said, "$24,000 is a lot of money to pay for photocopying".

"This government promised an open, transparent, consultative approach to the NBN. It is the largest infrastructure project in Australia's history. It does seem very strange that they are hiding all this information from the public," Malone said.

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