Expert says FOI changes 'retrograde' step

THE Abbott government is planning to set Australia's Freedom of Information regime back almost 20 years, with the abolition of the Information Commissioner and other reforms introduced to parliament this week.

That was the opinion of lawyer FOI expert Peter Timmins, who said the "retrograde" changes would return the Commonwealth Government's transparency policies back to pre-1995 levels.

The FOI reforms, announced in the May budget, would see the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner abolished, Labor's 2010 FOI reforms repealed and key review mechanisms handed over to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Mr Timmins said the changes would see many of the 25,000 annual FOI applicants be forced to pay an $861 fee to have decisions reviewed when government agencies refuse to release documents.

"The vast majority of the 25,000 applicants each year aren't journalists or interest groups - they are individuals trying to find out how a decision that has been made in Canberra directly affects them," Mr Timmins said.

"These changes would see the overarching 'open government' policy sent back to before the 1995 Australian Law Reform Commission recommended the creation of the information commissioner.

"It took 15 years for the government to put that in place.

"What they're really doing is getting rid of the pro-disclosure culture that office was meant to create."

The repeals would save the government $10 million over four years, and also see the removal of a "merits review" for controversial FOI decisions, when made by a minister or "agency head", instead only allowing reviews to the tribunal.