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Government Secrecy


Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Tags: Right to Information, Transparency

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Deputy Speaker, I note for the Hansard record the uncomfortable pause after the Leader of the Opposition sat down when no member of the Government apparently was prepared to leap to their feet to defend the Government's record on transparency. I will say a few things about the Government's record on transparency -

Government members interjecting.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order.

Ms O'CONNOR - The Greens welcome this matter of public importance debate and the opportunity to talk today about the multiple layers of secrecy and opacity which have not only become a hallmark of the Liberal Government but are now integral to its brand. We see it across every agency. We see it in the actions of most ministers. I will say there were some notable exceptions at the Estimates table last week of ministers who were very clear in their communications, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

I take the House back to the very beginning, to 24 November 2014, not that long after the Liberals came to government, when my former colleague and now senator, Nick McKim, put in a right to information request for -

… the locations of all proposed developments, including GPS coordinates if available, from the expressions of interest process for proposed developments in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and other national parks and reserves.

He was refused sometime between December 2014 and February 2015. It was appealed against on 13 February 2015 and only in November 2019 did the Ombudsman come back and release the information - almost five years to the day from the initial submission.

That is standard with right to information under this Government now. You put in a right to information request. There are delays in acknowledging that your request has arrived. There are multiple breaches of the time periods in the act. There are requests for extensions. Then the response invariably is heavily redacted documents - and too frequently, an argument from the delegated right to information officer that it is not in the public interest to release that information.

That was the argument used with the expressions of interest right to information request that the former member, Mr McKim, lodged in 2014. The department came back and said it was not in the public interest. It was very much in the public interest, as the Ombudsman ultimately found, for people to understand the extent of the expressions of interest process in public protected areas, and where the proposed developments are on public protected lands.

We have the most recent and most damning Ombudsman's Report which states -

Tasmania's public authorities refused access to any information in 30 per cent of their 2018 19 Right to Information decisions. This rate of refusal is nearly twice that of the next highest jurisdiction, Queensland at 16 per cent, and 750 per cent that of Australia's most open jurisdictions, Victoria and the Northern Territory, both at 4 per cent. Tasmania's percentage of refusals in full has been increasing each year since 2016 17 when it was 15 per cent.

Correspondingly a higher percentage of RTI requests were appealed to and externally reviewed by my office than any of my counterparts around Australia.

The other key contributors to external reviews are - 'failure by authorities to determine requests within the act's time frames'. There is a figure here that shows Tasmania's public authorities failed in this regard in 27 per cent of their 2018 19 decisions. This has been a deliberate effort on the part of this Government to undermine the intent of the Right to Information Act 2009 - to corrode its spirit. The Government might say all these decisions are made at arm's length. However, we know, for example, a quality control group has been set up at a secretarial level at the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment, to oversee right to information requests that come in. No, of course we are told, we don't make any changes. Then why on earth would you set up an entity called 'a quality control group', if it is so independent and at arm's length from political influence or decision making.

Then there was the right to information constant stonewalling over our attempts - and attempts of people who love the wilderness - to obtain information on the lease and licence arrangements through the expressions of interest process. The Government said, 'commercial-in-confidence, we are not releasing that information'. It goes to the Ombudsman who says, 'No, there is no commercial-in-confidence argument here', and I am paraphrasing, 'it is in the public interest to understand what arrangements Government has struck with private developers over public lands'. Finally, we had some information on the leases and licences, five to six years after the expressions of interest process started. That is how we learned the Government had secretly negotiated a lease with a private developer over all of Halls Island, inside the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and Walls of Jerusalem National Park. All done in secret, for $80 per week, and with what the minister for Parks last week at the Estimates table described as 'exclusive possession'.

When we talk about wilderness areas being privatised under the expressions of interest process, it has now been confirmed that privatisation is exactly what is happening. The Government negotiated a lease over a whole island, giving a private developer 'exclusive possession' over an island in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area that is loved by many bushwalkers and fly fishers.

Then we have the Small Business Hardship Grants, $26 million of public money, the details of which have been withheld by a secretive Government. We have political donations and the absolute inertia on political donations, the scandalous secrecy over marine farming, the expenditure review committee of Cabinet. We still don't know who they are.