STATE OF SECRECY
Labor invokes confidentiality clause 39 times
Premier Mark McGowan’s promise to deliver an open and accountable government has come under fire after a dramatic spike in the number of decisions by his ministers to thwart the release of information to the public.
With the State Government less than halfway through its first term, figures show that it has invoked a little-known secrecy clause to withhold information almost as many times as the Barnett government did in its entire second term.
The Opposition has pounced on the revelations, saying they make a mockery of Mr McGowan’s claims of running government to a “gold standard” of accountability.
Among the questions ministers have refused to answer are the names of those attending exclusive cash-for-access
fundraising dinners, the cost to taxpayers of tennis ace Roger Federer’s “quokka selfie” and the TAB’s wagering turnover.
A key tactic of the Government’s for withholding information has been to trigger section 82 of the Financial Management Act.
Ministers have issued section 82 notices in Parliament 39 times since coming to power, compared with 55 times during Colin Barnett’s second term as premier and just 12 in his first term.
The notices, which must be referred to the Auditor-General, allow the Government to not provide information to Parliament on the grounds it is commercial or Cabinet in confidence or might somehow harm the State. However, the AuditorGeneral has found that about half the decisions were not “reasonable and are therefore not appropriate”.
The Government is also relying on technical arguments to avoid releasing information about Labor Party fundraising events that cash in on ministers’ roles and influence.
Despite the party recently charging $3000 a head for “intimate” dinners with Transport Minister Rita Saffioti, requests by The West Australian for details of who paid and attended, and what issues were discussed, have been blocked.
The West was refused access, citing the FOI Act, to any correspondence about dinners because they did not involve another agency within Government.
“In your application the documents to which access has been refused do not relate to the affairs of another agency and therefore do not meet the requirements to be documents of a minister as defined in the FOI Act,” the Office of Information Commissioner said.
Former auditor-general Colin Murphy, who stepped down recently after 11 years in the role, said the number of notices was creating a major workload for the office.
Mr Murphy said that while in many cases there were legitimate reasons for not releasing information, many others were simply unreasonable and inappropriate. He said governments had to guard against a presumption of withholding information that the public often had a right to know.
“The Parliament is there to scrutinise the actions and the activities of the government of the day, and obviously they can’t do that if they don’t have access to the information,” Mr Murphy said. “These questions need to be considered properly for the Auditor-General to provide an opinion to Parliament. It’s not a trivial matter, that’s for sure.”
A spokesman for Mr McGowan pointed out the Government had received more questions in Parliament than the previous government, while noting some of the section 82 notices had been warranted.