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Monday, February 18, 2008

Still in the dark about Albert Park

Two separate decisions by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to uphold determinations by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation (a statutory corporation subject to Victoria's Freedom of Information Act) illustrate the significant barriers to access to information concerning the operations of the Corporation in conducting the Grand Prix in Melbourne.

The annual business plans of the Corporation (required by statute to be submitted to the minister), in this decision, were found to be exempt because of a special provision in the Australian Grand Prix Act includes a special exemption for information about a contract with the International Grand Prix authorities; another provision of the Act protects a business plan for 5 years; as the plans were mainly created to brief the minister on issues to be considered by a Cabinet Committee, they were exempt as Cabinet documents; and to boot, the internal working documents, professional privilege and business affairs exemptions applied to all or part of the documents.

Some parts of plans now 10 to 12 years old have been released by the Corporation, but the Tribunal upheld the decision to refuse access to the entire plans for 1999 - 2001, for various reasons along the lines mentioned above. In declining to exercise the discretion to disclose these documents on public interest grounds, the Tribunal, in line with the recent Court of Appeal decision in Osland, said that the barrier is now very high, requiring a finding that the case for access is "irresistible".

In this separate decision the Tribunal also upheld a Corporation decision to refuse access to information relating to the 2005 Grand Prix about total ticket sales, the number sold to overseas and interstate visitors and the total number of free tickets issued. Save Albert Park Inc. sought access in order to test public claims about attendance at the event and the economic benefits for the state. The Tribunal found that the information was of a business commercial and financial nature and would expose the Corporation "unreasonably to disadvantage". Again the barrier to be crossed to justify public interest was not reached.

These might be reasonable decisions based on the law but raise an issue about whether the balance has been properly struck between the public right to know, and the confidentiality necessary for the efficient conduct of (government) business.

Despite the high direct and indirect cost to the Victorian taxpayer, confidentiality has trumped the community interest in knowing about plans, finances and whether the attendance claims are based on fact, even information of this kind now some years old.

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