We thought local councils in New South Wales would be transparent but that was as naive as thinking they would cooperate with student journalists.
Statewatch is a term in The Newsroom that represents countless hours, hard work and frustration endured by 14 reporters over the past six months.
Our investigation began in May. We aimed to contact every local council in New South Wales to obtain detailed breakdowns of travel and entertainment expenditure for each councillor and senior staff member.
When I first met the team and took on the role of editor of the project, I was greeted with an enthusiastic and motivated attitude.
However this enthusiasm was shortlived because almost every council declined to comply with our requests. With each rejection the team lost a little more faith.
For information that is considered “public” it proved extremely hard to access.
Statewatch was told by the majority of NSW’s 152 councils that we would need to go through the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 to get the information. We sent off 152 formal GIPA applications – without the required $30 fee, asking that it be waived on the grounds that we are students under financial hardship and the information we sought was within the public interest.
Very few councils complied; rejection letters arrived daily. A common excuse was that they did not have the resources to fulfil our request. My personal favorite was that councils did not keep individual councillor expenses in their records.
Let’s get something straight here: councils’ annual reports provide an aggregrate of councillors’ spending in a each specific area. These final figures come from a calculation of every transaction made by every councillor for the entire year. Therefore the information we requested is undoubtedly recorded.
What was interesting was the range of responses received: some councils provided us with simple final figures that were already accessible on their websites (but was still not the information we had asked for); some would immeditately say no; a very few gave us something substantial.
We then asked why our requests were being rejected. Almost every MP, council and government department we spoke to (including the Division of Local Government and the Local Government and Shires Associations) declined to comment.
Considering local government in NSW is the closest level of government to the community, it shocks me to think that they would not even speak to us when we mentioned our investigation.
To be clear, Statewatch was not on a witch hunt. We were not going after people in an effort to damage councils. It was actually quite the opposite. We understand that councillors need to travel and meet other councillors and constituents as a part of their job and that a level of expense comes with this. We were just researching what these costs are.
I think the majority of councillors are hard-working honest people who love representing their communities. But councils’ continual refusals are bound to make one wonder what they have to hide.
Scotland, the UK and the US publish detailed figures online. So why can’t it be done here?
The Scottish Parliament’s system is brilliant; it would have to be right up there with the leading systems for transparency in the world. It allows the public to go online and search easily through every single item of expenditure for any parliamentary member.
This move to openness came as a result of a scandal. I hope NSW is not going to wait for similar motivation.
Our story began as a research project but lost direction when the councils stonewalled us. It was doubly frustrating to be asked to pay for information that should be available to the public.
We are now requesting a review from the Office of the Information Commissioner for the councils that didn’t give us detailed breakdowns. – Candice Cokinas