Melissa FyfeOctober 10, 2010
LIKE a naughty school kid, the Treasurer was suspended from Parliament last week. In a rare move, the Coalition, Greens and Democratic Labor Party ganged up on John Lenders and turfed him out of the upper house. The reason? They were fed up with the government snubbing its nose at Parliament.
In the upper house, opposition parties can vote together to demand government information. It’s a powerful request and, legal experts say, can be refused only in limited circumstances. But on Thursday night, as parliamentary staffers waved goodbye to MPs – it was the last sitting week before November’s poll – the government had refused to release more than 400 requested documents.
Many of the documents, some requested as far back as May 2008, relate to policy issues that will feature in the election: the desalination plant, hospital services, smart meters. The reason the opposition parties suspended Mr Lenders, leader of the government in the upper house, was because they were annoyed. The government had won the stand-off between Parliament and executive power. The documents would stay secret.
These documents are just some of the information the Brumby government is suppressing before the election. According to The Sunday Age‘s calculations, the government has suppressed at least 20 key pieces of information by refusing to release documents or using freedom of information laws. The result is a large range of material -data, contracts and reports – is missing from the public debate.
Despite the government’s claims to be transparent, governance experts describe Victoria’s approach to information as being from the ”horse and buggy era” and have called on the Premier to introduce right-to-information laws that put the onus on the government to ”push” information out, rather than the public having to ”pull” it from the government through freedom of information.
Such laws have been adopted by Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania, said former Labor speaker of the lower house, Ken Coghill, who now lectures in governance at Monash University. ”I know John Brumby has a belief in accountability,” said Dr Coghill. ”This election is a great opportunity to announce further steps and introduce right-to-information legislation.”
One example of the missing pieces of information is the cost per litre of desalinated water. The Auditor-General last week estimated the lifetime cost of the plant and its water, but the government has refused to provide an estimate of how bills will be affected after 2013, when current price structures end.
The government has also fought the Coalition’s attempts to make public the first business case for the controversial $2 billion foodbowl project. The plan underpinned the commitment of big taxpayer dollars to regional Victoria. The government lost its freedom of information case and is appealing to the Supreme Court.
Voters will also not get to the bottom of the Windsor affair before the election after the government refused to allow former media adviser Peta Duke – who suggested a sham public consultation over the development in her media plan written for Planning Minister Justin Madden – to appear before an upper house committee.
The government is fighting in court the opposition’s bid for access to media plans similar to Ms Duke’s. The government argued these were exempt from FOI because the 26 taxpayer-funded media advisers in the Premier’s officer do Labor Party work, not strictly government work. The government has also refused to release notes of meetings between Mr Madden and Windsor developers.
The government took the Coalition to the Supreme Court recently over its request for police rosters, despite having given the opposition similar information twice before. The government also refused to release to the Parliament information about which lobbyists it met over the desalination plant. Voters will never know why the government chose the winners of the multibillion-dollar tram and train contracts, or what criteria was used, as these documents were automatically deemed secret.
Also missing are reports on children who have been sexually abused or assaulted in state care (which the opposition asked to be stripped of personal information), source documents of dental waiting list data, data sets used in the preparation of the Your Hospitals report, details of the memoranda-of-understandings between police and other bodies and a report on the payment of large bonuses to people who run the Victorian Funds Management Corporation, criticised for losses of state funds.
The government argues it releases a huge amount of information online – more than ever before – and has given ”thousands” of documents to the upper house. Attorney-General Rob Hulls said the government uses its ”executive privilege” to deny the upper house access to some documents because they were cabinet-in-confidence, commercial-in-confidence or legally sensitive. The government has also argued requests are too time-consuming.
Mr Hulls said many documents the opposition complained about were in annual reports but ”the opposition is too lazy to go through … publicly available documents”. He said the government tried to reform the Freedom of Information Act, but the opposition voted it down (the opposition had concerns over the bill’s treatment of ”vexatious” applicants).
Recently, the opposition found what it thought was a gem – a true indication of the government’s approach to freedom of information. In a memo to one of Finance Minister Tim Holding’s advisers, a public servant advised a course of action ”to avoid any unnecessary media/opposition scrutiny”.
This is all upside-down for Rick Snell, a freedom of information expert and senior lecturer in law at the University of Tasmania. Like Dr Coghill, he believes Victoria’s approach is antiquated, that it must introduce the right-to-information laws other states have. ”Your version of FOI is the 19th century, horse-and-buggy approach where ordinary people have to pull information out of the government,” he said. ”What we need to do is train public servants and politicians that secrecy is not the only game in town.”