Right to Know Pro For Journalists, Researchers, Academics, Campaigners, and FOI professionals.

A new way to make FOI requests, for professionals

Since we launched Right to Know we’ve regularly heard from journalists, who would love to use Right to Know, but need to keep Freedom of Information (FOI) requests under wraps until a story comes together.

We also know it’s not only journalists who need to work carefully through the issues of complex FOI requests, until a body of work is concluded.  We know how vital it is that you have the option to keep requests and responses private while you get the facts straight. And we know that takes time. 

So now, we’re launching Right to Know Pro, a fully featured toolkit, for journalists and researchers.

Use all the powerful tools of Right to Know to help save time, make requests more easily, and keep them safe until you’re ready to share your work with the world.

When you’re ready, you can then share requests and responses with your audience. 

Make FOI requests using Right to Know Pro, your requests and responses remain connected to your story, helping the public understand the substance, and verifying the source of truth with citations. 

You make and track multiple complex FOI requests, so Right to Know Pro provides a clean and powerful dashboard to simplify your FOI workflow across multiple and complex requests.

In the absence of easily traceable information, people can and do make up their own stories about the truth of your work, especially when it challenges their existing world view.

Reshare and refer people who want to see your FOI sources down the track. The presence of your hard work will also continue to be available, even if the Government agency later removes their disclosure log. No dead links when machinery of government or policy changes turn up dead links on a Government pr media website.

  • Keep requests and responses private while you work on your story
  • Send requests to multiple authorities with batch requests
  • A super-smart to-do list: follow the progress of your requests
  • Save as draft to get back to it later
  • Action alerts: know when it’s time to take the next step
  • Daily summary emails to keep your inbox clean
  • A powerful actionable private dashboard: track and manage all your FOI projects

Get Started with Right to Know Pro now

Posted in Announcement, RightToKnow.org.au | Leave a comment

Thank You for All Your Comments

Today we removed the ability for people to comment on speeches published at openaustralia.org.au

We’re taking a pause on letting anyone comment on OpenAustralia because, in our work we want to make it a little easier for people who want to make a difference, to have their voices heard, for their voices to matter in the collective decision making we call democracy. We don’t think we’ve been successful in offering that here.

The commenting facility takes work to maintain, so we need to know that it’s adding value for the people who use OpenAustralia. The truth is, only about 350 people have commented on a speech since the site launched in June 2008. Maybe that says we’re not providing a facility people want, or that we’ve not provided quite the right way to do it. We just don’t know.

To everyone who has taken the time and effort to read, consider, and respond to speeches made in Parliament on OpenAustralia, a heartfelt THANK YOU. Listed by order of recent comments:

Tibor Majlath, Charlie Schroeder, Bill Thomson, Mark Duffett, Steven Azar, Warren Mccahill, Andrew Jackson, Romeo Alvaro, tony mckinnon, Alis Jacob, Isabel Storey, Michael Peters, Errol Nilson, Zhan Pintu, Dirk Bossard, Brett Hilder, Meredith Doig, Bernie Ramsay, Gill Caunce, Michael Dixon, KENNETH JURY, Johannes Kock, Robert Ashman, Carl HANICH, Adrian Menzel, John McWhirter-Whitlock, Leigh Wiggins, WARREN RODWELL, jules makk, Philip Hodges, Dwight Walker, Carlo Larocca, marcia flower, Stephen Caddaye, Madeleine Chapman, Patti Luskan, Bianco Salsano, Alcy Infinity, Kellie Nelson, Vicki Stebbins, Michael Rynn, Alison Keen, Tony Zegenhagen, David Simpson, Stephen Tittensor, Ray Bazouni, Jacob Mulquin, Grant Miller, Pete Gello, Harry Makris, Margaret Neal, Christopher Grey, Claire Bettington, William Boeder, Luke Walker, Mark C-F, Deirdre Ryan, Planecrashzone Planecrashzone, Andrew Simmons, Benton, Kay Spurr, Jane Russ, Anthony McIntyre, Brett Sanderson, Peter Rogers, Tom Peace, Arthur Ventham, Patti Farnell, Nathanael Coyne, Kathleen Minassian, Pat Patrick, Jennifer Jary, Shelley Travers, Kaye Schwartz, Ryan Brown, Glenn Kerswell, Steve Butel, Natalie Davis, David Hill, Chas Van Hulsentop, Rodney Ross, Donna Connors, Shay Holmes, Mary Alderson, Jim Gray, Carmel Connors, David Collins, dan diver, Thomas Nel, George Peterson, Ahmad Mostafa, Jenny Watson, Bill Macfarlane, Brian JAMES, K N, William McCann, robyn furci, David Redwood, Nerryl Brown, Henare Degan, Roger Helbig, tim leung, Mark Nicol, Mark Addinall, Munir Chagpar, 22 football, Jill trotter, Jason McClurg, John Goss, Pauline Zerbo, George Parker, James Walker, Keran Carsburg, John Griffiths, Roger Colclough, David Barratt, Bernie McGurgan, Chris Weir, Margaret Major, Antony (Tony) Amos, Elaine, carlos aparicio, al collick, Tim Handley, Steven Knowles, Eric Palmer, Maksim Stojanovic, Rona Goold, Brett Silich, Patricia Norman, Penelope Bell, Nathan Campbell, John Clapton, Margaret-Rose STRINGER, Chris Edwards, Hank D, Mark Addinall, Debra Lovi, Ernie Gimm, Michael Wells, kristopher kubique, Hari Guduru, Belinda Schneider, Renato Bright, Patrick Shanahan, Barbara Olsen, Jan de Wit, Robin Sharee Eastick, Pui Ho Lam, Free Mind, Melissa Stewart, Craig Bellamy, R Barron, G Gough, john jeayes, robert, David Gardiner, Ross Ulman, Delphine Stagg, Emily, michael spalding, abc 123, marlene huff, karan krishna, Daniel Kinsman, Dot Newbold, Margaret Makewell, Minnette Sheiles, Rebecca Dunstan, steve callaghan, al, Peter Demmery, Bill Realph, Sarah, treena day, Steve Wickenden, Nicolette Norris, James Kruithof, Julian Fidge, Dean Cottier, Ben Christy, jaime schultz, Barbara Johnstone, Verden Bell, Graham Martin, jim coleman, Jackie Bowden, Michael Cranny, Travis Broes, Mark Thorp, Ern Chang, Ray Borradale, cath blue, Andrew Black, Joy Butler, brian cooper, paul, Josh Cooper, Susan LakesNeedWater, Melissa Raven, Ken Jury, Stella Dyball, Dallas Beaufort, Maarten Vanderhaar, Colin Gourley, Philip Copeland, Lisa Hodgson, Richard Eden, Corey Irlam, Secret Ballot, christian borleis, Mele Fotu, Simon Dodds, Warren Rankin, Ralf Kluin, Deirdre Ryan, Iain Murchland, Margaret Muddle, Mike Male, Tony Huynh, Yodie Batzke, John Winterbotham, Donald Tate,Kevin Russell, Nish, jewel mahmud, Brian Armour, shirley williams, James, Greg Boyles, Peter Adnams, Brandon Chant, chris barrett, Philip Clark, J Jackman, Philip Lillingston, rachael dersch, Roger Coates, Rachel Teesdale-Smith, Rochelle Roberts, David Edgar, Shayne Cummin, Collin Van Uden, Adam P, Dale McClelland, Ian Rist, Lindsay Holmwood, Josef Tadich, John Rodda, Thomas Castiglione, Rod Chaffey, clive Osmon, Bruce Reyburn, David McNeil, Mick Loeckenhoff, Laszlo Kovassy, Dominic Gladheart, John Trigge, Anthony Moore, kerrie watherston, Andrew Smith, Harjeet Sing, MOrgs MOrgs, Bernie Glynn, Sherif Mansour, Peter Thornton, Debbie Bayliss, SYED HASSAN RAZA NAQVI, Shaun Lambert, Ernest Chamberlain, harry spicer, Geoff Mason, Kris Gesling, Caroline Cox, Sally Rose, Bill Ray, Dominique Quirke, Melissa McFarlane, Karen Fehring, Elly Bingham, Lloyd Stephen, Bronwyn Moir, Tonia Paroz, Nicole Carver, Kiera Pedle, Frank Baarda, connaught linton, Judie Gade, Hadley Baker, John Brown, David Leigh, James Fehon, Jonathon Singleton, Juiced Pixels, Ben Gran, Grendel, Trent Murray, Steve H, Ashton McAllan, Ben, Leonard Matthews, Joshua Moran, Joel Dignam, Graham Inskip, James Hay, Raymond J Warren, David Tangye, Mal Boyce, Paul Burns, Gary Jarrad, Matthew McDaniel, Delory, Paul Esson, Andrew Rossiter, Ben Rogers, Simon Rumble, Reng Ten, Brett Carnes, Daniel Snow, Amanda Kelly, David Elliott, Jason Geddes, Shelby de Piazza, Alexander Bakharev, Rasto Petrovic, Richard Jary, Mental Health Nurse, Robert Nelson, Philip Holder, Jaye, Kat Szuminska, Dan Oost, Patrick Terrett, Kieran Bennett, Michael O’Meara, Iain Murray, Ross Frove, Morgan Gobson, Noel Kelly, Peter Wood, Alan Howard, Sean Carmody, Cameron Reilly, Scott Bulfin, Darren Entwistle, Peter Daams

I want to personally thank you for speaking up for something you feel strongly enough about in this way.

For the time being, any and all comments you made before will remain visible, at least the next few months.

What role might commenting play a role in the future direction of OpenAustralia?

To help us decide what to do, if you’ve made a comment before, we would love to talk to you. Would you be willing to say a little about your experience of making a comment on OpenAustralia or have a short conversation by phone? Email us at hello@oaf.org.au

Posted in Announcement, OpenAustralia.org | Leave a comment

How we deal with moderation on Right to Know

There have recently been a few articles published in The Guardian about a request on Right to Know that we were asked to moderate. As one of the volunteers who spends the most time looking after Right to Know, I wanted to explain what happened in this case and explain how we moderate requests on Right to Know generally.

How this specific request was handled

In October 2019, the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) reached out to us requesting the removal of a number of requests. You can find our full email chain with the APSC here.

The first thing we asked the APSC was to tell us what they were specifically concerned about. We then worked through each concern with the APSC.

Instead of just removing the requests (as they asked us to do), we agreed to hide the names of 3 public servants and keep the requests on the site. We felt this was the right balance between someone’s name being associated with an allegation of illegal conduct, and transparency and requests remaining public on our site.

Once we had made the changes, we then annotated the requests and contacted the requestors so they knew what had happened and why.

Investigation by the Commonwealth Ombudsman

The Guardian then reported a complaint had been made to the Commonwealth Ombudsman that the APSC had engaged in “legal misconduct”. The report went on to say that the APSC had been cleared of misconduct.

We provided the below statement to The Guardian as soon as we were aware of the story:

Right to Know was not contacted at any point during the investigation by the Commonwealth Ombudsman into allegations the APSC intimidated us.

When the APSC made us aware of potentially defamatory content, we worked with the APSC and took steps to redact as little of the request as possible to keep the request public.

We feel that it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the Ombudsman to get the full story without contacting us first. We would have appreciated being advised of the complaint and the outcome before learning about it through the media.

You can read the follow up story from The Guardian here.

Transparency and Moderation – Getting the balance right

We are obsessed with transparency, and with giving you tools that you can use to effect change in our democracy. Moderation is not something we take lightly, however there are some things you can do to help us.

The Simple Stuff

We ask people who make requests to keep them focused. This means:

  1. No arguments about your case
  2. No statements that could defame or insult others

If you follow these rules, it’s likely you’ll never come into contact with moderation on Right to Know.

There are a few things that we will remove as soon as we are made aware of them:

The software we use to run Right to Know also attempts to automatically hide telephone numbers and email addresses, however it’s not 100% perfect so we may hide these manually.

More Complex Moderation

We sometimes receive requests from government authorities (like the APSC and the Australian Taxation Office) who are concerned about a request. They may ask us to remove a request saying that it’s defamatory or there are other safety or “public interest” concerns.

We have a published Takedown Policy, however each request is different and we review each request on it’s merits.

The first thing we ask any authority who wants us to take moderation action is to put in writing exactly what they want removed and why they want it removed. We may follow up with the authority if we have further questions or to get a better picture of what’s going on.

As the email contact happens via our contact email address, it’s not automatically put on Right to Know. We can provide you with a copy if the authority agrees, otherwise you can request the email trail via Freedom of Information (using Right to Know for full transparency if you want!).

Once we the information from the authority, we review the request, any other relevant information, and our policies. Our goal is to keep as much of a request as possible online. Once we’ve worked out what we can do, we then let the authority know. In some cases, we will refuse to take action on a request (if it doesn’t meet our guidelines).

If we make any changes to a request, the last step (and most important) is putting a note on the request to indicate what we changed and why. We will also reach out to the requestor privately to let them know so they can ask us any questions.

More Information or questions?

We have quite a bit of useful information in our help pages, and you can always reach out to us via email if you have any questions. Our team are here to help with anything FOI related.

Posted in RightToKnow.org.au, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

The story of a tiny, almost invisible change

I don’t really like technical blog posts.

Instead this is a story of a tiny, almost invisible change we made to PlanningAlerts, what led us to make this change and the surprising amount of under-the-hood work it took to get there.

We made a “tiny” change to how comments are shown on PlanningAlerts. “delivered to the planning authority” is now a link (it’s underlined).

screenshot of comment

When you click on the link it gives you some more information

screenshot of comment after clicking

This should give you extra confidence that the comment was definitely delivered to the local authority.

How it all started

A kind and considerate soul emailed us to let us know of a strange comment that had been posted on PlanningAlerts.

Does this post have any truth in it?

Is this post damaging the Planning Alerts site?

Was the CAPS really necessary?

Here is the comment in full


Ive been let down by this page thinking mine and many others are being heard here. It makes a difference. It does not. After contacting council in past, they had no clue about my rejection of development or from others on this page. It seems Acting authorities never know about what written here. This site should be taken down as everyone presumes it has direct or indirect authority to distribute to relevant departments.


There were similar comments made by the same person on three other applications.

My first emotional response was “how dare this person say this, how rude!”.

That person didn’t even contact us directly to ever let us know there was a problem. We don’t read all the comments. There’s just too many for a tiny team doing too much. And then to throw around those blanket accusations.

Ouch! It really hurt to hear that. We have put so much time and effort over the years into ensuring that emails from PlanningAlerts get successfully delivered. We went as far as developing a new open-source transactional email server, Cuttlefish, to give us visibility and improve deliverability across the board. We made PlanningAlerts to give people access to the democratic process and getting their comment delivered is pretty core to that objective.

Then to my horror I realised that what the rude comment was saying was partly true. For the last couple of months 15 or so comments were not delivered to that one particular council. This was terrible!

We are human and our software is written by humans.

In 10 years PlanningAlerts had an amazing track record. We actually only know of one instance when emails were not delivered to a council In that case, a council changed their email address and didn’t forward emails to their old address. As soon as we were notified, we manually readdressed the emails and worked with the council to get them delivered in time.

So, what was going on? Down the rabbit hole of email sending

(Here’s where we get technical)

What was super weird at first was that only some emails to that one council were bouncing. The bounce message mentioned “DMARC” which was not something I knew about at that stage. So why were only some messages getting bounced and not others when all the comment emails are generated the same way? Nothing in the content of the comments looked like spam, the formatting of each email is identical. I found it really confusing.

Then, I noticed a pattern. All the comment emails that were bouncing were made by people with “yahoo.com” or “yahoo.com.au” email addresses. A quick search of “yahoo DMARC” led me to an explanation.

Yahoo had an unusually strict DMARC policy which meant that any problems with emails that look to originate from yahoo domains would get hard bounced. So, we had a DMARC problem with our comment emails but it had been unknown to us up to that point because almost nobody was enforcing it so strictly.

At this point I’ll just quickly backtrack a little. For a long time we’ve been ensuring that our emails pass SPF and DKIM tests. Cuttlefish helps enforce this and does it all pretty much automatically. However DMARC, does two main things. It allows an owner of a domain (e.g. yahoo.com) to say how email servers should handle mail from that domain when SPF and DKIM tests fail. So, in our case SPF and DKIM was fine, or so we thought, so why were the yahoo.com emails failing to get delivered?

Well it turned out it was to do with the second part of what DMARC does. It also enforces domain alignment; the domain in the “from” address of the email needs to be the same domain as used in SPF and DKIM. This is the problem that got us. It turned out that our comment emails had headers of the following form:

From: <email address of the person making the comment>
Sender: contact@planningalerts.org.au
To: <email address of council>

The Sender header is used in circumstances where emails are being sent on behalf of someone else. It’s defined in the email RFCs but generally has not been particularly well supported.

The purpose of all that was to ensure that when someone makes a comment via email that they receive replies from the council rather than us.

It turns out that DMARC essentially stops the Sender from ever being used. It appears that this was a conscious choice made by the DMARC designers because the Sender field is not shown to users in email clients.

So, we switched the email headers to:

From: contact@planningalerts.org.au
Reply-to: <email address of the person making the comment>
To: <email address of council>

And this magically solved our problem.

We resent all the recent comments that had previously bounced because of this, and our job was done.

Actually no. It would have been easy to stop there but actually we wanted to make sure that if something similar to this happens in the future we don’t find out about it because someone emails us asking about a comment on the site. We should be the first ones to know there is a problem.

After we fixed the way that comment emails are sent we started working on a whole host of other changes to improve the visibility and the impact of any potential future hard bounces for comment emails.

Improving visibility and reducing the impact of problems

In explaining earlier that only emails from the “yahoo.com” didn’t get delivered I was over-simplifying. What actually happened was that a yahoo.com email would hard bounce and then the email address of the council would get added to a “deny list” in Cuttlefish. Once an address gets added to the “deny list” any further emails sent to that address will not be sent. Addresses then get cleared out from the “deny list” after one week. This is an automatic feature of cuttlefish designed to reduce the chances that we send out bad emails which improves the deliverability of our emails across the board.

So the case of sending emails to local authorities is different from sending transactional emails (email alerts, etc..) to “random” people on the internet. We should be really confident that the email address of the council is correct and that emails to them generally should not bounce.

So, next we added a feature to cuttlefish.io to allow PlanningAlerts when it’s sending the comment emails to say “please ignore the deny list when sending this email”. This means that if an email hard bounces to a council, that cuttlefish will still attempt delivery for any subsequent emails to the same address. So now if hard bounces do happen the impact will be reduced.

Then we started working on the “visibility” part. If a hard bounce happens for a comment email how can we get notified of this urgent problem? One option would be that we get an email. In recent years we’ve been trying hard to limit the number of emails generated automatically for notifications and instead send those notifications to Slack. So, why not just try sending a notification directly to Slack instead?

How to do this? We don’t want Cuttlefish to have the knowledge to notify us of certain problems with certain emails but not others. It makes much more sense for PlanningAlerts itself to do that because it’s the one that knows the difference between the different kinds of emails. This is where we need to get some of the delivery information from Cuttlefish back into PlanningAlerts.

This finally gave me the reason and motivation to add a feature to Cuttlefish that I’ve been wanting to do since I first built it – which is to add webhooks where every time there is a successful or failed email delivery a custom URL (on another site of your choosing) is hit with information about the email. In our case we’ll be making a new URL endpoint on PlanningAlerts to accept those webhook callbacks.

So how do we identify if the email corresponds to a comment email or an alert email and which comment email? I think the most elegant solution to that is to allow the sender of an email to attach custom metadata.

Here’s an example of a comment email as seen in Cuttlefish showing the attached metadata (in this case comment-id):

screenshot of cuttlefish metadata

So then it was a relatively simple matter of hooking up a bit of logic in PlanningAlerts where on every “delivery event” it receives from cuttlefish, it checks whether it’s from a comment and whether it was a hard bounce and if so it sends a notification to our slack channel.

screenshot of slack notification

At the same time as we put this in we noticed another council was bouncing emails! This time for some reason they had just decided to specifically block our email server. Thanks for that. Thankfully they quickly fixed it when we asked them to and we again resent the emails.

Making it visible to people using PlanningAlerts

We’re confident now that all the changes we made to improve the delivery of emails to councils and to notify us of problems makes it unlikely that similar problems will reoccur in future.

However all this stuff is under the hood and invisible to users. Perhaps that’s how it should be?

However, it’s not uncommon that we get emails from people who just want to make sure that the council did in fact receive the comment they made through PlanningAlerts. The council tells them they never received it, so we check in Cuttlefish to find that the council absolutely received the email.

What if we could make this more clear for people?

Why don’t we do something similar to what is in RightToKnow.org.au where the message says whether it was successfully delivered?

screenshot of RightToKnow request

So that’s what we did. The final piece in a long chain.

Posted in Planning, PlanningAlerts.org.au | Tagged | 1 Response

Last week in Parliament

You may have been reading about the unsuccessful amendments to the Coronavirus Economic Response Package that opposition MPs and Senators attempted to pass last week.

The amendments related to expanding the Government’s JobKeeper payment to include more workers, such as casual workers, workers with major charities and working-visa holders who are still in the country. They also called on the Government to create a specific emergency response package for the Arts and Entertainment sector, as many workers in that sector are ineligible for the JobKeeper payment. (You can see how your representatives voted on expanding the JobKeeper payment and supporting the Arts sector on They Vote For You.)

The majority of these amendments were proposed by Labor Party MPs and, while there was broad agreement between Labor, the Greens and other opposition parties and independents, there was also disagreement. For example, Labor Party senators refused to support several substantive Greens amendments in the Senate, arguing that to do so would only delay the passage of the bills. In the words of ACT Senator Katy Gallagher (Labor):

We will not engage in a situation where the legislation could get blocked between chambers. That is not an option.

Though this raises the question: if the Labor Party were unwilling to risk any delay to the legislation, why did they propose any amendments at all?

The answer relates to the difference between substantive amendments – like what the Greens senators proposed – and what could be called unsubstantial amendments.

Substantive versus ‘unsubstantial’ amendments

A substantive amendment would be one that is introduced in order to change the actual wording of the bill. This can mean replacing words, deleting words or adding new words (for example, adding a new clause). On the other hand, an ‘unsubstantial’ amendment wouldn’t make any changes to the bill itself but would instead change the wording of, for example, one of the usual procedural motions.

What are the usual procedural motions?

When a bill goes through Parliament, there are certain motions that must be agreed to. One of these is the second reading motion, which is:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Reading a bill for a second time is parliamentary jargon for agreeing with the main idea of the bill. If this motion is successful, the bill will then be considered in greater detail. If it is unsuccessful, then the bill is said to have failed and will no longer be considered by either house of parliament.

Amendments to procedural motions don’t affect the content of the bill. Instead, they can be used to express an opinion towards the bill. For example, an MP may propose to add the text: “but the House believes the Government is doing a very bad job.” Even if this proposed amendment is successful, it doesn’t actually change anything: the bill will still be read a second time and will continue its passage through the House. The only change is that future readers of the parliamentary record will be able to see that the majority of the House was unhappy with the Government at that time.

Last week’s amendments

With the exception of one substantive amendment in the House, all of the Labor Party’s proposed amendments were of the unsubstantial kind. That is, they proposed to add text to the end of the usual second reading motion but didn’t actually make any changes to the bills.  For example, Rankin MP Jim Chalmers (Labor) introduced the following unsubstantial motion:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

” whilst not declining to give these bills a second reading, the House:

(1) notes that this legislation gives the Treasurer extraordinary powers to include those not currently eligible for the JobKeeper Payment; and

(2) calls on the Treasurer to use his power under this legislation to ensure more jobs are protected and that struggling, otherwise viable businesses and organisations are able to access the JobKeeper Payment”.

This unsubstantial amendment was unsuccessful, but even if it had passed, it would not have made any actual change to the bills. Instead, future readers of the parliamentary record would simply be able to read about how the majority of the House wanted the Treasurer to use his powers – the Treasurer himself wouldn’t be bound to follow their advice.

The Labor Party’s one substantive amendment was moved by MP for Watson Tony Burke (Labor) during the Consideration in Detail stage, which is when the House debates the bill in greater detail. That amendment proposed to add new words to a clause in the bill but was unsuccessful because it did not have the support of the Coalition MPs.

In the Senate, the opposition senators often have the numbers to pass amendments even when all the government senators vote against them. However, if the amendment is substantive and changes the wording of a bill, it needs to go back to the House of Representatives for our MPs’ approval before it can become part of the bill.

This is where bills can become stuck: the government majority in the House will refuse to agree with the Senate’s amendments and the opposition majority in the Senate will refuse to accept the bill without those amendments.

Because the Government had already made clear that they would not be agreeing with any amendments in the House, the Labor Party senators decided not to attempt any substantive amendments in the Senate. They also chose not to support the Greens Party senators’ substantive amendments, which only received the support of senators from the Greens and Centre Alliance parties.

What next for Parliament?

Currently, Parliament will not sit again until 11 August 2020, due to concerns about spreading COVID-19. But according to ABC News:

… Mr Albanese [Leader of the Opposition] doesn’t accept that argument. He maintains that parliaments in other nations affected by coronavirus continue to meet and scrutinise their governments’ policies.

Whether the Opposition will succeed in convincing the Government to re-open Parliament remains to be seen.

UPDATE: The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that there may be a trial week of sitting in May.

Posted in OpenAustralia.org, They Vote For You, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coronavirus and our Federal Parliament

Sitting calendar for the first half of 2020

Our federal parliament is scheduled to sit next week but, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s going to look a bit different. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister released a media release explaining the type of changes we should expect. In a nut shell, our parliament is battening down the hatches and reducing its business to the bare minimum required to keep the country going.

What does this mean for representation?

For those of us with representatives who belong to the two major parties – the Coalition and the Australian Labor Party – there won’t be any significant changes in terms of how you are being represented in parliament. This is because your representatives are already voting according to how their party whip tells them to, except on those rare occasions when they cross the floor. So whether they are in parliament next week, or simply paired with an opposition member, the result will most likely remain the same.

For those of us with representatives who are independent or belong to a minor party, the question is a little trickier. The main reference to these representatives in the Prime Minister’s media release was that “All crossbench and independent Members and Senators will be able to attend [parliament], should they want to.” In other words, they will not be prevented from attending parliament, but the voting arrangements being made are mostly between the two major parties, leaving the independent and minor parties to their own devices. We will have to wait and see how many of these representatives are able to attend parliament next week.

What does this mean for bills that have not yet been passed?

The media release makes clear that parliament is only meeting to consider the bills relevant to their planned stimulus package and “any other immediate business”. Once that business is dealt with, the parliament will adjourn and our representatives will return home. This means that all bills that are not immediately relevant to the current crisis or required for the continued running of the country will be put off until a later date.

How can I keep up to date with our parliament?

The most up to date information is generally available via the House of Representative and Senate twitter accounts. Follow them for the latest news.

Posted in They Vote For You, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who will you vote for this election? A party or a person?

They Vote For You is based on the principle of holding individual representatives to account. You can find your representative’s report card and see how your electorate’s voting power is being used in Parliament. If you’re unhappy with what you find, you can contact your representative and ask for an explanation. And if you’re very unhappy, you can vote against them in the upcoming federal election.

That’s how They Vote For You works: you look up your representative and you assess their individual performance. But does this person-based approach reflect reality?

Party politics

The vast majority of our MPs and senators belong to a party. And most belong to either the Australian Labor Party or to the Coalition (which is actually an alliance of parties). This means that when our representatives vote in Parliament, they vote along party lines – a process that is helped along by party whips who make sure their members vote the way their party wants them to vote.

On very rare occasions, our politicians rebel and cross the floor to vote with the other side. But this usually leads to the rebellious representative leaving the party, as was the case with former Liberal and now Independent MP for Chisolm Julia Banks.

This all begs the question: when we go to the polls on 18 May 2019, who are we voting for? The person? Or the party?

The answer no doubt depends on each voter themselves, as many of us have strong party affiliations whether or not we’re actually card-carrying members. Only you can say whether you’re ticking that box because you think Person X will best represent your electorate or because you like their party and want it to have the most voting power in Parliament.

And thanks to our party-based political system, both of these approaches to voting are valid.

But the important thing to remember is this: your representative is only in Parliament because your electorate put them there. And that means you outrank the party whip when it comes to deciding how they should vote on your behalf.

So after this election is over and the business of government resumes, remember to keep an eye on how your representative is voting for you on the issues you care about and, if you don’t like what you see, tell them about it. Because ultimately, they answer to you.

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Do They Vote For You?

Comparing words and actions

The federal election is less than a month away and, with some exceptions, our MPs are hot on the campaign trail seeking re-election. Now’s the time to decide whether you’re happy with your local MP’s work in representing your electorate, or whether you think it’s time for a change.

How can They Vote For You help?

MPs seeking re-election will be making many claims about how they’ve stood up for their electorate during their time in parliament. They Vote For You lets you check their claims against their actual voting record.

For example, to check Barnaby Joyce’s voting records on water rights, you can enter his name into the search field on theyvoteforyou.org.au and be taken to his profile page.

From here you can search within the page for “water” and see that Barnaby Joyce has voted very strongly for “Making more water from Murray-Darling Basin available to use” and very strongly against “Increasing protection of Australia’s fresh water“. Clicking on those policy names takes you to a detailed list of all the times when this MP is on record as voting on divisions (or formal votes) which relate to this policy. We also include a detailed breakdown of how we calculate the scoring to determine a stance.

How accurate is this voting record?

They Vote For You is as accurate as the available parliamentary data allows us to be. Unfortunately, our parliament does not keep a record of how our representatives vote ‘on the voices,’ which is when our MPs stay in their seats and shout ‘Aye!’ and No!’ so that the loudest side wins. This is unfortunate, because most votes in parliament take place on the voices, leading to an incomplete voting record.

It is also important to keep in mind that politics is a messy beast. Even if the way an MP has voted in parliament doesn’t line up with how their electorate would want them to vote on one particular issue, that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing their job and representing their electorate. It’s often the case that politics involves compromise and tradeoffs – voting against the electorate’s desires on a smaller issue in order to be able to deliver a bigger win for the electorate on a more important issue. Those trade-offs and bigger pictures aren’t captured in the raw voting data, but we’d expect that any MP should be able to explain those things to their electorate.

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A new era for morph.io

When morph.io was built, we leveraged a lot of awesome existing work already in the open-source ecosystem. In particular, we were able to heavily lean on work down by the Herokuish project had done to create a platform that can run scripts written in a variety of languages. The Herokuish project, in turn, built on the cedar-14 stack which had been open sourced by Heroku; and that in turn was built on top of Ubuntu 14.04, which builds on countless contributions from people all over the world.

Five years later, the cedar-14 stack is nearing the end of its life. As of this month (April 2019) Canonical will no longer support Ubuntu 14.04; Heroku will no longer support cedar-14 – and morph.io will no longer be able to support the platform we’ve relied on for so long.

Instead, we’re going to be rolling out a new platform. We aren’t changing too much though – the components we’ve been using are working well – we’re simply upgrading them. The morph.io scraper platform will now be based on the current version of Herokuish, which is based on the Heroku-18 stack, which is based on Ubuntu 18.04, which is based on even more contributions from even more people around the world.

To help smooth the transition, we’ve added multi-platform support to Morph. The new platform is available now for you to start testing, and to start using if you find that it works for you.

We will be changing the default platform in early May. At that time, any scrapers which haven’t explicitly chosen to stay on the existing platform will start to run on the new platform. We’ll still keep the old platform around for a while longer to help anyone who didn’t manage to update their scraper before the change.

What is changing?

Supported language versions

Heroku-18 supports  more recent language versions than were usable on Cedar-14. However, this means that many older versions aren’t supported any more. If you were relying on an older version of your language, this is likely to mean you need to check for compatibility with the new version.

Heroku-18 currently supports Ruby 2.4.6, 2.5.5, and 2.6.2, as well as a wider list of Ruby versions availabe through JRuby. Python versions 2.7.16, 3.6.8, and 3.7.3 are currently supported. PHP is currently supported for version 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3. A full list of the supported versions for every language is available here.

If your scraper specifies a different language version, it’s possible that Herokuish may still be able to install and run that version for you. However, we suggest that you upgrade to the supported versions wherever possible.

Operating system packages

The shift from Ubuntu 14.04 to Ubuntu 18.04 is a large one. Many of the packages on the base platform have been upgraded to a much newer version. However, in some cases, packages have been replaced by a newer equivalent package, or have gone away completely. In some cases, new packages have been added that add capabilities that weren’t present before.

For the most part, we expect that you probably won’t need to pay attention to the OS package versions. However, the full list of packages on both cedar-14 and heroku-18 is available from Heroku’s support site.

What do I need to do?

Choosing a platform

You can choose which platform you want to use by including a file named platform in the top level of your scraper’s repository. The contents of the file should match one of the tags in our buildstep container registry. Currently, the available tags are early_release for testing the new platform, and cedar-14 to keep your scraper using the old platform. If no platform file is found, we’ll use the default release.

You can see an example of a scraper being configured for the new platform here.

Learning more and reporting problems

We’ll be posting updates about the new platform on help.morph.io as we get closer to making the new platform the default.

If you find bugs or run into problems on the new platform, please let us know on help.morph.io/.

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Freedom of Information Amendments proposed

On 23 August 2018 the Senate referred the Freedom of Information Legislation Amendment (Improving Access and Transparency) Bill 2018 to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 30 November 2018.

Here is OpenAustralia Foundation’s submission to the Senate in response.

Prepared by Ben Fairless, Katherine Szuminska, James Polley, Matthew Landauer

Amends the: Archives Act 1983 to require the reporting of external legal expenses incurred by the National Archives of Australia; Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 to: ensure that the Information Commissioner holds specified qualifications; and require the separate appointment of the Australian Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner and the Freedom of Information (FOI) Commissioner; and Freedom of Information Act 1982 to: enable the transfer of Information Commissioner reviewable decisions to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT); require the consistent application of exemptions by decision makers in the context of a review by the Information Commissioner; prevent the Information Commissioner from making FOI decisions if he or she does not hold specified qualifications; prevent agencies from publishing FOI information until at least 10 days after the applicant has received his or her copy of the information; and require the reporting of external legal expenses for each Information Commission or AAT FOI matter that has concluded.

Bills of the current Parliament

The OpenAustralia Foundation would like to thank the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs for extending this opportunity to make a submission to the Committee’s inquiry into the Freedom of Information Legislation Amendment (Improving Access and Transparency) Bill 2018 (the Bill).

Over the last few years the government has acted to undermine and disempower the OAIC, reducing scrutiny of its actions and limiting access of citizens to government information. We broadly support the intentions of the amendments as they serve to reduce some of the ways in which the OAIC has been undermined.

We broadly support the intentions of these amendments, as laid out in the explanatory memorandum, and comment on a number of the amendments.

We recommend that the committee support many of the following proposed amendments

The OpenAustralia Foundation (OAF) recommends that the committee support many of the the amendments proposed in the Freedom of Information Legislation Amendment (Improving Access and Transparency) Bill 2018 (the Bill).

The OpenAustralia Foundation recommends the committee support proposed amendment 1 –  the Archives Act 1983, 55B, reporting on legal expenses we support this amendment.We further encourage the committee to consider if, in 2018, it isn’t unnecessary to wait up to 12 months for the public to know how much the government spent on external lawyers to challenge Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. We therefore respectfully further suggest that this information be required to be ongoingly reported. For example, this information could be declared publicly online within 30 days, in a machine readable format, on their own website, and uploaded to a public repository such as data.gov.au. Summaries would then easily available and downloadable, for the Annual Report, as well as reuse by others who report this information independently, and for external researchers use.

Amendments to Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 and Amendment 2  At the end of section 10, Amendment 3 Subsection 12(2)

The OpenAustralia Foundation supports qualified assessment of FOI reviews by a sufficiently resourced, fully Independent FOI Commissioner who has appropriate qualifications and who has demonstrated support of FOI as a vehicle for giving people the right to access information.

To the extent that this amendment removes a loophole under which an unqualified Privacy or Information commissioner could exercise the FOI functions, we support this amendment.

Amendment 4  At the end of section 14 Separate commissioners to be appointed

We support the intention that each Commissioner’s appointment be a separate person, so that one person is not doing the work of three people.

The OpenAustralia Foundation broadly support amendment that the office not be left open for more than 3 months is useful in the short term. It’s a defensive maneuver to ensure that the role be not effectively ceased by leaving it open.

However, we have a question about this. Is it possible to compel the executive to make an appointment? Or give the power to the Senate or the House to appoint someone if the position remains vacant for a period of time?

While this comment is beyond the scope of consideration by the committee, the OpenAustralia Foundation would like to suggest a more sustainable way to ensure the role be usefully maintained. Introduce a more robustly Independent process, where the appointment of Information Commissioners is not dependent on the support of the executive that they are there, ultimately, to hold to account.

It’s time for a full review of Freedom of Information

While OpenAustralia Foundation is recommending the committee support this amendments bill, we do so as it is the only thing we are aware of before Parliament that seeks to improve access to information.

We note the recommendations of Dr. Alan Hawke in the 2012-2013 review and the suite of recommendations that yet lie unexplored and untapped in the provision of better FOI service for everyone.

In Australia’s first Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, the Government committed to a range of reforms including Information management and access laws for the 21st century. This too remains stalled or incomplete.

Freedom of Information is essential to a secure democracy

The Government holds information gathered on behalf of the Australian people. The Government is required to make documents in the public interest freely available to the public. Governments also need to give open access to people wanting specific information.

Australia was an early adopter of securing the rights of everyone to access information, but the rest of the world is moving quickly and we’re now falling behind.

Only half a dozen countries secured the rights of everyone to access information when Australia enacted the Freedom of Information Act 1982. As of September 2013, at least 95 countries around the world now have Freedom of Information laws. These are also known as Access to Information and Right to Information laws. [1]  A number of countries have enacted FOI legislation since this report, taking the number to well over 100. This access is a key component of transparency, accountability and civic participation. It’s a way for everyone to scrutinize Government and public sector information, to become better informed, and to take full part in our democratic system. FOI is increasingly strengthened as part of Open Government initiatives, in which Governments are expected to be open and promote openness.

The last time we wrote to support retaining the Office of the Information Commissioner (OAIC), Australia ranked 47th in the world, and today that ranking has further slipped to 65th in the global index of right to information standards. [2]

We can do much, much better.


Freedom Of Information (FOI) is a crucial part of the checks and balances in any democracy, and key part of transparency and accountability of Government.

The process of making a freedom of information request is not very straight forward. OAF created the RightToKnow.org.au site with the aim of demystifying and simplifying this process and helping more Australians make FOI requests.

The site not only shows all requests but the paper trail of correspondence in pursuit of the request from those requesting documents and those holding them. Read more below at About RightToKnow.org.au

The site provides an unparalleled public view of the workings of the Australian Federal FOI system.

RightToKnow collects evidence

OAF facilitated 1627 requests in 2017, and 1787 so far in 2018 FOI requests and their related correspondence made to local, state and Australian Federal authorities through RightToKnow.org.au

OpenAustralia Foundation sees how many requests were unsuccessful (refused or did not turn up any documents), and just how many remain unresolved. These await reply, await classification, are overdue, or long overdue for a response. RightToKnow doesn’t provide a way to follow  them through to Information Commissioner review currently.

The OAF has previously provided information relating to unsuccessful requests to earlier inquiries. We are currently compiling the latest statistics and will publish them here as soon as they are available.

Australia needs a fully functional and fully independent OAIC

For accountability, everyone need access to a free merit review system administered by an effective independent office.  We already have that office, in the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC). Underfunding the OAIC, then complaining that IC reviews take too long and using public money to hand appeals over to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), a system that is inherently more expensive to administer each decision, and which requires legal representation on both sides, looks like a heavy handed, inefficient move at increased cost to the Australian public.

Delay release by the Agency or Minister to the public, by default

Amendment 8  Subsection 11C(6) where the  agency or Minister delay public release of information released to the applicant.

In response to amendment 8, the OpenAustralia Foundation understands that FOI is applicant blind. 10 days is a fairly lengthy delay by default, however delaying release by default can also be a safer option. We’ve seen examples on RightToKnow just in the last couple of months where private information was erroneously published; therefore it makes more sense to default to a delayed release to give both sides a chance to review what’s about to be released.

We note that this would be possible to implement across the board in RightToKnow, and is a provision we have been actively considering.

We note the importance that this provision only binds the agency or Minister; it doesn’t prevent the applicant from making the information they received public immediately.

*Time limit for publication
(6) The agency or Minister must comply with this section within 10 working days after the day the person is given access to the document.”

Further to this provision, there is an opportunity to clarify that documents should be published at this time. Currently what’s required to be published in disclosure logs is a way to access the documents, and not necessarily the documents themselves. This is interpreted by some to not publish the documents online.

Keep Freedom Of Information Free for Everyone

Amendments 9  Subsection 29(1)(d) and 10  After subsection 29(5) suggests granting an exemption of fees if the application processing costs are under $1,000.

The OpenAustralia Foundation opposes amendments giving different rights of access to Members of the House of Representatives and Senators. We believe that the existing 5(b) public interest test would be sufficient here – that is, if the cost is low and a Senator or Member is requesting the information, we believe that it’s likely to be in the public interest that charges are waived..

We believe that making exemptions for politicians makes it more difficult for politicians to notice problems with the legislation that affect everybody else using it.

If this amendment has been suggested because of an understanding that Parliament is currently paying too much in order to have FOI applications approved, we believe this indicates that costs are too high for everybody and would prefer to see them dropped overall rather than an exemption being made for Senators and Members.

Fund the OAIC, and let it serve the Australian Community. Keep Appeals Timely and Free, for Everyone

Amendment 12:  At the end of Division 6 of Part VI, 55JA   Procedure in IC review—notice requirement if lengthy review and 55JB   Procedure in IC review—transfer to Tribunal

To give ordinary users of FOI access recourse when their requests are denied, refused or avoided, then FOI law gives the a right of appeal to an independent office. An external review system which is accessible, free, and appropriately resourced to enable independent and timely assessment of whether the everyone’s rights of access were upheld is essential.

The OpenAustralia Foundation does not support amendment 12 as it stands, it’s a long time to wait for a review. The applicant has probably gone through a 30 day initial, 30 day internal review, maybe some consultation, even where the authority is straightforward in their dealings. It’s possible for the request to be outstanding for 60+ days when the matter gets to the Information Commissioner (IC)  – The IC should be sufficiently funded to be able to make decisions in the normal course of events within 30 days, and allow them to be referred to the AAT.

We do however, fully support waiving the costs associated with referral to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Having been significantly hampered in its operations since the Government attempted to abolish the OAIC, agencies continue to routine refusing requests knowing this will go on unchecked for significant periods of time, and as a result, far fewer cases have be investigated. If fewer people trust the FOI system, fewer requests will be made. Determinations will lead straight to a more costly review process needing expensive legal assistance. That would be a terrible outcome for FOI and for Australia’s democratic health.

There are those who do wish to go straight to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), including media reporters following a time critical story. While this bill provides options to allow people to refer a matter to the AAT without waiting a minimum of 6 months, we are concerned that this provides an incentive to not increase the funding of the OAIC to provide an acceptable service to the Australian community, but rather divert funds to a body that necessarily formalises the appeals process.

Framing FOI as a legal problem, not a civic right is plain wrong. FOI decision makers and officers use the language of legal exemptions in interpreting the Act, rather than emphasise the need for openness and of ‘maximum disclosure’ made more explicit in 2010 reforms to the FOI Act.[4] Having learned all the standard tricks of the refusal trade, agencies have become very adept at refusing FOI requests as a matter of course.

Everyone Has a Right To Information

Switching from one argument to refuse a request to another can be a lack of clarity in the initial assessment, a defensive move, a delay tactic, or a blindness to everyone’s rights to know.

As we have noted before, we’ve had an opportunity running RightToKnow, to see how agencies behave. Publicly available FOI requests and their correspondence have given us all an opportunity to see first hand how agencies handle requests.

The evidence we present shows that there are big differences across agencies’ handling of FOI requests. Some agencies handle requests professionally and courteously. Thank you to those agencies.

Some agencies show a systemic culture of secrecy and a disrespect for FOI requests at work; they’re the ones gaming the system.

A systemic culture of secrecy

We support amendment 11.

Australia has unbalanced laws about releasing information. The Government already appears acutely aware of the risks associated with releasing information but much less aware of the risks of not releasing enough information. We have a system which severely punishes those public servants who release information which in it’s view ought not be public, and consciously or not, systematically encourages and protects those who avoid publishing information they could easily share. Thus it becomes safer for every public servant to hold documents close, and release as little as possible by default. This all helps to create the culture of secrecy.

We’re not surprised when we see agencies interpret FOI law to the most minute detail with the purpose of   releasing information to the public by default. They argue against the release of even mundane documents where the material is uncontentious or even publicly available in another form already. At the same time, obstructive agencies also display what might be wilful misinterpretation or incompetence in their failure or inability to give the documents requested.

Such responses show that there is a culture of working harder to refuse rather than share their documents, Whether due to failing inefficient old information storage and retrieval systems, fear or lack of leadership, they’re acting in flat contradiction to their responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act 1982(FOI Act).

Some are knowingly gaming the system, and we have observed that switching reasons for refusal can fall into that pattern of delaying tactics. For this reason, we support amendment 11.

Amendment 11  Procedure in IC review—consistent application of exemptions by decision-maker  that includes relying on any exemptions in Divisions 2 and 3 of Part IV that were not relied upon in making the IC reviewable decision.

About RightToKnow.org.au

Right To Know aims to make it easier for everyone to make Freedom of Information requests in a few different ways.

  • Helping you make your successful request is the main focus of the site
  • Bringing all the authorities together saves time, you don’t have to trawl the web for the right authority first
  • To make the process easier to understand, it uses plain english
  • To get a feeling for the scope, wording of successful requests, it offers you dynamic search for related requests so you can see how others have done it
  • Clearly communicates your rights of access
  • Guidance appears as and when you need it to keep the request flowing through Right to Know and the Public Authority to whom your request is being made

RightToKnow does not provide help for individuals accessing private or personal information held by government.

About OpenAustralia Foundation

The OpenAustralia Foundation encourages and enables people to participate directly in the political process on a local, community and national level. We believe that we can help to reinvigorate Australia’s civic culture by using powerful and exciting new technologies to inform and empower people, to address the growing disconnect between the Government and the people who elect it.

We currently do this through our five online projects TheyVoteForYou.org.au RightToKnow.org.au, OpenAustralia.org, PlanningAlerts.org.au and previously ElectionLeaflets.org.au. Additionally we provide infrastructure with morph.io These services aim at finding better ways of making government, the public sector and political information freely and easily available and usable by all Australians. We aim to inform people so they can make a positive difference.

The OpenAustralia Foundation is a strictly non-partisan organisation. We are not affiliated with any political party. We are simply passionate about making our democracy work.

Notes and References

*Not included here or at RightToKnow.org.au are requests which were hidden from the website because they contained inappropriately personal requests for information (not what the site is for). This is made clear on the site’s help page.

[1] Right to Information Index: http://right2info.org/access-to-information-laws

[2] https://www.rti-rating.org/country-data/

Posted in Announcement, RightToKnow.org.au | 1 Response