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Thursday, October 30, 2008

NSW Premier Rees tells RailCorp, and a broader audience he means it.

The Sydney Morning Herald today in "Rail blunders put hundreds of commuters at risk" gives details of an internal safety investigation report from RailCorp about two bungled rail projects that have cost NSW in excess of $150 million and that could have cost lives.We are reading about it, as Lynton Besser tells us, "because Premier, Nathan Rees, intervened to order the release of the report after a seven-month battle between the Herald and RailCorp, which is now before the Administrative Decisions Tribunal, to have the document released under freedom-of-information laws."Well to be accurate it's during that fight, with RailCorp represented by a big city law firm, which would have gone into next year.The RailCorp safety investigation report is here.

As Matthew Moore comments elsewhere in the Herald:
"Under Iemma, Bob Carr, Kevin Rudd or John Howard, this document would have remained secret. But Rees is desperate to be different. He told Parliament last week NSW would no longer be the secret state, and promised to change the public-service culture....(In intervening in this case) he's put public servants on notice that the rules have changed and sensitive documents such as this one should be released, even if it embarrasses people."

The Herald has posted the FOI determination by RailCorp to refuse access. Why RailCorp didn't want you to see the report is well-crafted template lawyer's stuff, and illustrates the range of excuses you can grab onto, supported by bits and pieces from decisions in various parts of the country, quoted selectively when they appear to help, to defend a decision to refuse access.There would have been a strong chance that the decision would have stood up to review in the Administrative Decisions Tribunal. A lot of evidence and legal argument beyond the resources of most of us would have been required to try to have the decision overturned.

However policy and the ground-rules have changed."We are deadly serious about changing the culture when it comes to government information," the Premier said yesterday.It will be an ongoing challenge to get this message through the various nooks and crannies of government agencies. And what will the ADT make of the Premier's statements on the public right to know in considering whether to release otherwise exempt documents in the exercise of it's discretionary powers?

The sun has risen this morning and the earth continues to turn on it's axis, contrary to what RailCorp predicted. And the ongoing debate about management of the rail system in NSW, a matter of major public significance continues, better informed.

How much time and public money was spent on this by RailCorp over the last seven months? How much more time, energy and money is being spent to prevent access to other documents about important aspects of the way our government carries out public functions?

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