The NSW Baird government’s assault on your ‘right to know” shows no sign of abating, writes Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi.
Critical habitat of the last Little Penguin colony on mainland NSW was cleared late last year, near the Quarantine Station’s Boilerhouse restaurant at North Head, Manly.
Trying to reveal ‘whodunit’, and why, has yet again shown up the absurd lengths the government will go to to keep information from the public.
After being alerted of this in June and having no joy in finding any publicly available details by the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) or any media reporting, I submitted a freedom of information application for the results of any investigation that may have been conducted about the clearing.
Simple enough, right? Wrong.
Despite the GIPA (Government Information Public Access) application being refined to a three-month period, restricted to only one office within National Parks and related to just one specific incident of clearing, I was told to agree to an extension of time for up to three months. I was also asked to significantly reduce the scope of the request to such an extent that it probably would have excluded the very information I was seeking. I was told if I didn’t agree, they would refuse to deal with the application. And refuse the application they did, a decision upheld even after my appeal to internal review.
A media story following recent parliamentary budget estimates finally revealed that OEH had undertaken a special investigation into the clearing, and replanting had also taken place though there was apparently insufficient evidence to take any action against the restaurant. Surely, this information could have been supplied in response to the GIPA. Why go to such lengths to keep information secret?
Increasingly, avenues for accessing information which should be public anyway end in closed doors. More often than not, due dates for receiving GIPAs are delayed at the last minute, no matter which government department you are dealing with. One of the reasons often given for refusal is a lack of resources and the high number of requests.
Even if an application is accepted, it rarely yields useful information. I suspect this is a familiar story for many who have tried to get documents of public importance out of the Government. Often enough it ends in unwarranted bills of hundreds of dollars or being forced to significantly amend the request so it looks nothing like the original. At best you end up with a highly redacted document, or reams of emails and meeting requests missing the vital attachments.
The purpose of the GIPA Act is to make government information more accessible to the public, but one gets the feeling that slowing down the system by starving it of resources is a strategy the Baird Government is using to keep information secret from public, in the hope they will just give up in frustration.
If you really want to get the information you’re after, be prepared to bring in the lawyers and head to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal. This begs the question; why should information only be the domain of the well-resourced or the well-lawyered?
The latest report on the operations of the GIPA Act covering 2013-2014 looks glowing from the outside but things get complicated as you lift the lid. Only one-third of applications (or applicants) were granted access to the information in full, and a further 40 per cent received it in part. There are no measures to assess whether the applicant got what they wanted – or whether they simply accepted the outcome and filed away the useless documents they were granted, as I have had to do a few times.
It also showed the total number of applications for information slumped to the lowest number since the enactment of the GIPA Act. The proportion of applications made by members of the public (as opposed to the media, NGOs or even members of parliament) has halved since 2010.
I doubt that this is because the people of NSW trust the government more, or don’t want this information. It is more likely a reflection of a growing disenchantment with the process.
In the face of secrecy and a refusal to provide information becoming the norm (some would argue even an art form!), communities have to rely more and more on whistle blowers, activist investigators, and investigative journalists to be the information conduits.
So while we still wait to hear the full story of what actually happened to the last remaining critical habitat of Little Penguins on the NSW mainland, we must not give up on this notion that the public has a right to know what their governments are up to.
Freedom of information is the cornerstone of our democracy, not the liability it is being treated as currently.
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