The answer is the Australian government, which can apparently do both simultaneously.
It’s been nearly a year since I filed a freedom of information request in bid to get some basic facts and figures about the work of the Foreign Investment Review Board, the commonwealth department tasked with monitoring and regulating overseas investment in the residential real estate sector.
The application came in the wake of the Labor government’s April 2010 announcement of ‘‘strict’’ new rules governing the purchase of homes by foreigners and a crackdown on those who violate the law through a ‘‘very tough’’ new enforcement and penalty regime.
The cornerstone of the policy was that temporary residents now had to seek FIRB approval to buy an established home and would be required to sell it once they left the country.
The FOI request, lodged in November 2011, sought any documents about FIRB’s monitoring and compliance activities involving temporary residents — how many had applied, been approved to buy, and what, if any, investigations had been conducted or penalties levied for violations of the law.
In response, FIRB repeatedly blocked access to the information on the farcical grounds that its release wasn’t in the public interest, sparking a lengthy appeals process I chronicled in the blog posts ‘‘Secret Government Business’’ and ‘‘Secret Government Business Part II".
After a lot more wrangling, FIRB has finally released a handful of documents that — while incomplete and heavily redacted — suggest the regulator has either woefully failed to do its job or is abusing the FOI system.
The eight censored (and blank) pages I received indicate FIRB has not initiated any compliance investigations or activities relating to temporary residents since the foreign investment rules were tightened.
In May 2010, FIRB notified Treasury that applications from temporary residents to buy established homes had doubled since the April announcement. In July, it was noted applications had quadrupled, which were being logged in a database to ‘‘allow compliance officers to follow up in due course’’ (an observation repeated in October).
And that was it — FIRB made no further reference to any planned, new, ongoing or completed compliance work.
As for FIRB holding any information about checks on whether temporary residents were, in fact, selling up when they left the country, the regulator stated: ‘‘no documents have been found that would fall within the terms...of the request. I refuse access to documents on the grounds that no documents exist’’.
It’s a stunningly blank record considering the clampdown on foreign buyers was deemed necessary because of the existing ‘‘inadequate’’ compliance and penalty regime, according to then assistant treasurer Nick Sherry.
‘‘The new provisions announced today will mean that anyone trying to flout Australia’s strict foreign investment rules will face tough new penalties that will be fully enforced,’’ he had said.
Sherry also announced that a ‘‘significant’’ new data-matching program was already being trialled in Sydney and Melbourne, which, when rolled out nationally, would link land title and immigration records.
And, yet, in the 19 months between the Labor government’s self-declared crackdown and my FOI application no investigation into the activities of temporary residents seem to have been launched.
In fact, the response to the FOI shows that FIRB didn’t produce a single document mentioning its putative compliance program after Oct 2010 — more than a year before the FOI request was lodged.
Of course, given the wide-ranging powers the government has to exempt information from release, FIRB could have just decided to withhold what it’s been up to in all those blanked-out and missing pages.
Despite originally identifying 19 documents (66 pages) as ‘‘potentially falling within the scope’’ of my request, they saw fit to release only 3 documents (8 pages), and heavily redacted ones at that.
FIRB certainly has form for being zealously secretive and disdainfully dismissive about public disclosure.
Even a simple request for the number of applications that have been lodged by temporary residents was denied because providing such a figure would ‘‘necessitate a substantial and unreasonable diversion of resources’’.
That's their argument despite FIRB notifying Treasury that applications had ‘‘doubled’’ by May 2010 and then increased ‘‘four-fold’’ by July 2010.
It’s clear the numbers exist, they just won’t be released.
Which naturally leads to the question of why.
The Labor government's pathetic record on FOI issues and slap-dash way of making foreign investment policy are clearly at play.
But one other potential answer comes courtesy of a Propertyland reader who sent an email to FIRB in support of my FOI application and received an illuminating response in return.
‘‘The Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) is a non-statutory advisory body, and as such is not subject to legally binding reporting requirements,’’ FIRB's secretariat wrote.
In other words, we should just be thankful for whatever scraps of information they'll deign to distribute.
Many other readers also sent emails to the government backing my application, all of which challenged the notion that there was no public interest in the release of this kind of information (thanks, by the way).
When they weren’t ignored, they got the kind of pap above.
Following FIRB’s dismal level of disclosure, I have applied for a review of the decision with the Australian Information Commissioner.