The chance for the Statewatch team to submit FOI applications for free has been snatched away by the NSW Liberal Party. A private member’s Bill to remove the $30 application fee was blocked by the O’Farrell government despite his election campaign promises to abolish fees.
One of the many reasons Attorney-General Greg Smith gave for opposing the Bill was that it would lead to an “abuse of the system”. Labor MP and Member for Heffron Ron Hoenig told parliament about how the press had exposed issues with politician’s entitlements through an FOI application. This led to a change in policy which meant former premier Neville Wran had his entitlements taken away while on his deathbed. The moral in the story was even though FOI laws open the government to criticism, politicians “should be able to cop it on the chin”. He told the assembly: “We must all be bigger than that.”
Greens MP Jamie Parker said that during his time as mayor of Leichhardt Council they removed the fee and it didn’t lead to an increase of applications. He said “It sends a very powerful, positive symbolic message” that promotes transparency and welcomes applications. He added that the amendment did not remove the $30 per hour processing charge associated with most GIPA applications, which would still act as a barrier to many people. Mr Parker told The Newsroom: “The Labor Party introduced this private member Bill to politically out-maneuver the Liberals.” He agrees it wasn’t entirely about FOI laws. “It’s all about embarrassing the government. They’re [Labor] using this issue as a political chip.”
Opposition Leader John Robertson, who introduced the Bill, suggested Mr Smith apply for a job on The Gruen Transfer since he had the ability to spin himself and the party out of any situation. His closing speech said Premier O’Farrell had spent the first six months in office “prancing” about like he’d won a new reality TV show called “NSW Has No Talent”.
The Liberal party said another reason they no longer supported the removal of FOI fees was because they’d promised to amend the FOI Act 1989 and not the current GIPA Act. Mr Dominic Perrottet, member for Castle Hill, said: “We made a commitment and then another act came into force that we believe deals with the issues of accountability and transparency.” Mr Robertson said Barry O’Farrell had “back-flipped” and his decision was a “blatant broken promise”.
Media releases from the major parties have highlighted their differing views about releasing information. A spokesman from the Premier’s office said: “The NSW Liberal & Nationals Government is the most transparent in the State’s history, including for the first time publishing housing waiting lists, increasing the release of hospital data, and community services information.”
The Opposition Leader’s media release said: “The Premier has refused to release everything from documents about the closure of Grafton Gaol to details about major cuts to Sydney rail services.”
The Statewatch team has also noticed inconsistencies in regards to the release of information. Some councils have been very willing to provide travel expense figures, but not those for entertainment. Others have said they don’t have a budget for entertainment. It’s clear that government agencies are still able to pick and choose what information they release, even when a request for information is very specific.
A few councils said the Statewatch teams GIPA application would take some time and incur a processing charge. However other councils have happily waived the application fee and processing costs.
– Rebecca Smith