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Monday, February 27, 2012

Advising FWA on FOI concerning HSU proves to be nice little earner for AGS.

Excuse the Canberra speak.

It's no doubt true but probably not to the extent of $912,562 plus GST left open to speculation from answers to questions by the Australian Government Solicitor in Senate Estimates on 14 February. When I checked the figure with David Whitbread, Manager Corporate Communications, he told me (after a couple of days) that the figure of $912,562 "was not for FOI services" but  he was not at liberty to say anything else.  
Ian Govey and AGS colleagues faced questions about the role of the office in advising Fair Work Australia on matters regarding inquiries into the Health Services Union. Mr Govey opened with a general statement that officers could not say anything about client work without consent, for legal privilege reasons, but eventually and obviously with consent, said it had advised on related Freedom of Information matters.

Senator Abetz, warming to the subject, proceeded to give a practical example of the FOI dribble effect mentioned here in this recent post: the initial FWA response to an opposition application, according to the senator, was in effect 'We aren't going to provide you with anything.' The subsequent slow drips included AGS invoices that informed further questioning, as below - emphasis added to the source of ambiguity.

The result is that FWA has been shown to be a good little earner for AGS even if $912,562 plus GST covered broader services than dealing with opposition and perhaps other FOI requests:
Senator ABETZ: All right. When were you first engaged to advise in relation to matters FOI? Mr Govey : I do not have the answer to that question. I would have to take that one on notice. Senator ABETZ: If you could, please, because my office's initial request for FOI was rejected absolutely. Not a single document was revealed—a list of documents that would not be revealed was not even provided. Simply, they would not cooperate. Mr Govey, in your experience, have you ever advised another department or agency to behave in such a blocking manner in relation to a FOI request, other than possibly the Office of National Assessments, ASIO or the Defence Materiel Organisation? Mr Govey: : Senator, I hope you will understand that I cannot really agree with the premise underlining your question. If it were put in a different way, I would have to say that I am not really in a position to talk about the generality of advice that our FOI lawyers have provided across the board. Senator ABETZ: Perhaps you could take that on notice. We do not have to know with which department but how often in the last 12 months they have advised a department or an agency to simply not provide anything—and I mean that: anything. Not even a list of documents that they were not prepared to provide; simply a letter responding, in effect saying, 'We aren't going to provide you with anything.' It was only as result of the Information Commissioner's assistance—I will put it politely—that Fair Work Australia then provided us with some documents. A few days later, there were more documents and today there are even more documents. It seems passing strange that that sort of advice would have been given, but we will ask Fair Work Australia tomorrow about the strength of the legal advice and whether they are willing to share that with us. The blanket refusal that we got from Fair Work Australia seems to me quite strange. This has been quite a good little earner for the Australian Government Solicitor. Good luck to the Australian Government Solicitor on that—and I see Mr Wilkins smiling as it undoubtedly helps the bottom line. This is the sad fact that ought to wipe the smile off everybody's face: how much has it cost the Australian taxpayer thus far just in legal bills from the Australian Government Solicitor? Do you have that total? Mr Govey : I do have a total. It includes our fees and disbursements. It does not include GST which I understand would not ultimately be payable by Fair Work Australia. The amount is $912,562. Senator ABETZ: Up until what date is that? Mr Govey : It is at least sometime in January, but I think it might be right now.  Senator ABETZ: Chances are last night's consultations would not be part of it. Mr Govey : These are amounts that we have rendered invoices for. Senator ABETZ: Without being too extravagant, one could basically round that up to a $1-million legal bill that will be incurred by the taxpayer if not more, because one assumes you will continue to be briefed in relation to this matter. Mr Govey : I would not want to go beyond the $912,000 that I have just mentioned..

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