A FEW hundred metres from the Wentworth Park dog track in inner-city Ultimo lurks a shadowy agency that holds life and death secrets.

The Australian Council on Healthcare Standards knows precisely how often last year your local public hospital had "unplanned" returns to surgery - the accepted measure of operating bungles.

The ACHS also holds details on a range of other critical healthcare performance indicators, including every public hospital's speed at providing emergency treatment, their infection rates and the number of patients who missed out on intensive care "because of inadequate resources".

NSW Health bureaucrats who don't want you to see it have refused requests by The Daily Telegraph to provide that information for you.

NSW area health services have been served under the Freedom Of Information Act. In every case - with near form letter responses - the applications have been rejected.

It was claimed the information would "adversely affect" the operation of their hospitals if released.

This is just one recent example this newspaper could cite of how bureaucrats, at the behest of their political masters, are prepared to block release of Government information.

Sometimes the strategy is to deter access with huge financial charges - the Federal Department of Finance and Administration quoted $13,771.60 to access documents for every car chosen by Federal MPs as part of their electorate entitlements.

The department claimed it would require 454 hours at $30 an hour to consult with each MP about their views on releasing the information.

At other times, the reasons for denying of information is farcical. Police reporters with this newspaper have sought documents from the NSW Police Force on whether their phones had been tapped.

In a determination received yesterday, one of those reporters was told police could "neither confirm nor deny the existence of any documents concerning your request".

But it's not just FOI laws being abused.

According to the Federal Opposition, over the past four years Australian Federal Police officers have spent more than 21,000 hours - costing taxpayers $2.2 million - pursuing leaks to the media.

In the worst case, two journalists with the Melbourne Herald Sun newspaper were fined $7000, narrowly escaping jail, for refusing to identify a source.

The documents they obtained showed the Federal Government had spent only one-sixth of the benefits it had set aside for war widow and serving officers. For three years the journalists were hounded in the courts to identify the source of the story.

With the public's right to know so under threat, an announcement by Victorian Premier John Brumby of reforms to that state's FOI laws yesterday was welcome.

Mr Brumby promised to release more information and said applicants would be able to lodge requests online - although few details were immediately offered.

"Genuine Cabinet documents need to be exempt, but we will be clarifying the position in relation to that and it will mean more information, not less information, would be available in the future," Mr Brumby said.

But there have been no substantial commitments to reform from Federal Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd on the Federal FOI Act.

Opposition attorney-general Joe Ludwig has said a Rudd Government would "legislate for proper freedom of information laws that enable Australians to access appropriate information about Government activities". He gave no specifics.

In a speech delivered earlier this week, News Limited chairman and chief executive John Hartigan warned of an "entrenched culture of resisting disclosure" gripping all Australian governments.

He told the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association the balance of power had shifted dangerously in recent years from people to governments, citing a number of examples to argue his case.

"The ability of the press to report to Australians the facts about how we are governed and how our courts are administering justice is being severely hampered," he said.

Mr Hartigan said Australia lagged well behind most major democracies in the latest worldwide press freedom index, which ranked us at 35, behind Bolivia and South Korea.

In response to this restriction on information flow, a unique coalition of major media organisations including News Limited, publisher of The Daily Telegraph, has been formed called Australia's Right to Know.

Yesterday, Mr Hartigan said the coalition would demand "genuine reforms to public policy and ultimately legislation".

He said the coalition's first objective - getting Government secrecy on the public agenda - had already been achieved.

Fight for the right to know | The Daily Telegraph