30/06/2020 - 10:37

Freedom from information

30/06/2020 - 10:37

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The WA government has provided millions in taxpayers’ money without appropriate transparency and accountability.

The Australian Age Swimming Championships were among a number of events the government had helped fund. Photo: Stockphoto

It is almost 30 years since Carmen Lawrence’s Labor government introduced Freedom of Information laws designed to provide open and easy access to previously confidential information held in state and local government records.

At the time, Dr Lawrence said: “The new Freedom of Information Act reflects the government’s push towards improving the accountability of state and local authorities.

“It will ensure the processes of government at all levels are open to public scrutiny.”

No doubt they are noble sentiments, but not sufficiently so that all governments have considered them worth living up to. In fact, given the recent record of Tourism WA, it would appear that the spirit of openness is withering on the vine.

The lack of transparency is a problem in Western Australia, particularly with millions in taxpayers’ money being given to various organisations without public scrutiny or accountability. The justification for the largesse seems to be that there are appropriate social and economic benefits.

In fact, a recent auditor general’s report upheld a decision by Tourism WA – and accepted by Tourism Minister Paul Papalia – to withhold details of taxpayer-funded grants to 48 sporting and cultural events presumably designed to boost tourism around the state.

The justification, according to the auditor general, Caroline Spencer: “Tourism WA concluded that funding information for 48 events had a commercial value and its disclosure could compromise the ability to successfully attract, retain, develop or negotiate the events in the future, causing commercial harm to the state.”

The events for which taxpayer support was revealed included: the Ord River Muster ($550,000); CinefestOz ($450,000); Shinju Matsuri ($400,000); Taste Great Southern ($200,000); and the Truffle Kerfuffle ($150,000).

Events for which that information was considered sensitive and kept secret included the Bledisloe Cup (rugby union), the Fed Cup Tennis Final, the Australian Age Swimming Championships, and the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup Cricket.

However, the confidential list also included the Busselton Festival of Triathlon, Ironman Western Australia, and the WA Gourmet Escape, where there would have been no interstate competition, or (in the case of the Busselton triathlon) no competition from other towns either.

Even details of grants to three Sculpture by the Sea events were withheld, although the taxpayers’ total contribution of $585,000 had already been acknowledged by Mr Papalia in answer to a question on notice in May last year.

Tourism WA conceded this omission was an administrative oversight.

The reluctance to keep WA taxpayers informed on how their money is being spent contrasts sharply with the preparedness in South Australia to be upfront about details associated with staging this year’s first State of Origin rugby league clash between Queensland and NSW in Adelaide in November.

It has been reported that the SA government will outlay $6 million to host the event, with one proviso – that a capacity 53,500 fans be permitted to attend.

It’s estimated the event could generate $18 million, providing an impressive $12 million profit for the state’s economy.

Perth hosted a well-attended State of Origin clash at Optus Stadium last year, which had been secured by Colin Barnett’s Liberal-National Party government in 2016. But Tourism WA failed to reveal the taxpayer ‘incentive’ for the west coast event.

So why is SA upfront about its financial commitment and WA so reticent, especially when MPs in opposition, regardless of their party, make enthusiastic noises about open government?

Former Liberal Party leader and WA treasurer Mike Nahan, said public servants had much to answer for.

“There is a bias in our bureaucracy; I saw it when I was treasurer, and it should be eliminated,” he said.

“Disclosure should be the rule and non-disclosure should be a very restricted exception. And the argument that if you are competing with other states that [disclosure] would hinder our ability to get the project or cost us more, is bogus.”

Dr Nahan said public servants often included non-disclosure clauses in contracts even before the minister had any idea they were there or could respond to them. And breaching that clause might also breach the tender arrangement.

“The principle should be that, once the contract has been signed, the details should be disclosed,” Dr Nahan said.

If that applied to responses to parliamentary questions and FOI requests, Tourism WA would avoid embarrassing oversights in how it hands out the public’s money.

Government-funded projects (undisclosed)

  • Busselton Festival of Triathlon
  • Ironman WA
  • Athletics All Schools   
  • WA Gourmet Escape
  • Margaret River Pro World Championship Tour
  • Federation Cup Tennis Final
  • Australian Age Swimming Championship
  • ICC Women’s T20 World Cup Cricket
  • Bledisloe Cup - rugby
  • Australian Men’s Masters Hockey Championships

Source: WA Auditor General’s Report 23: 2019-20

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