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Monday, November 07, 2011

Some gems as NSW Ombudsman empties the FOI in-tray

The NSW Ombudsman has transitioned over the last year from the leading role of many years in dealing with Freedom of Information complaints, to cleaning up those on hand on 1 July 2010, or new, concerning FOI applications made before commencement of the replacement Government Information (Public Access) Act . The Information Commissioner is responsible for complaint investigation and external review for applications under the new act.

The Ombudsman's 2010-2011 Annual Report  (45-46) includes four case studies from investigations during the year, two concerning complaints by the then opposition leader, now Premier, regarding decisions by the premier's department to refuse access to ministerial advisers' salary and redundancy payments. The approaches displayed are (hopefully) now somewhat ancient history.

We have this glimpse of spinner's spinning:
During our investigation of the complaint, one of the media advisors argued that the release of her salary details would have an adverse impact on her spouse’s financial affairs. She maintained that if the details of her salary became known, it would hamper her spouse’s ability to ask for increased rent from tenants at their investment properties. Another media advisor argued that because she directed senior staff of a government agency, the release of her salary would be embarrassing to her. We expressed concern to the department about ministerial media advisors directing agency staff.
And this example of poor appreciation of the public interest.
The department refused to provide specific information about redundancies paid to staff previously employed in a ministerial office, who were then re-employed with either the same or a different Minister.
"The department provided an aggregate figure of $705,734 representing redundancies paid to 19 staff between 2005 and 2010, but refused to provide the amounts of individual redundancies, stating this would be an unreasonable disclosure of the staff’s personal affairs...In our view there was an overriding public interest in the disclosure of the details of all individual payments of public funds, particularly in the several cases where a ministerial employee was re-employed by the same office or re-employed in another ministerial office not long after receiving a redundancy payment. As a general principle, it seemed to us that information about the remuneration paid to a public official should not be treated as if it were a matter of complete secrecy
Presumably the Premier has had a quiet word about these world views since assuming office in March.

Manly Council's "concerning" FOI practices also attracted the Ombudsman's attention (47).

The Annual Report (47-50) includes a summary of the Ombudsman's expanded role under Public Interest Disclosures Act.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is a pretty eye-opening post. Seems to demonstrate exactly why FOI is important, and also why an ombudsman is important.