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VCAT Decision on FOI Case Announced

Friends of Mallacoota (FoM), represented by the Environment Defenders Office (EDO) and barrister Sam Ure, have been successful in a Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) case involving Freedom of Information (FOI).

In October 2010, FoM, a key body in the Save Bastion Point Campaign, went to VCAT to obtain documents relating to Bastion Point from the Minister for Planning and the Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD). We argued that they had failed to conduct adequate searches in response to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act 1982. We also argued that it was in the public interest to release some documents that had been withheld.

Initially Minister Madden said only one document fell within the scope of the FOI request. Remarkably by the end of the hearing, a further 1,508 pages had been uncovered!

In October this year, the Judge handed down her verdict: she said that a failure by agencies to do a thorough and diligent search thwarted the purpose of the FOI Act, and ordered that the Department and Minister pay the legal costs of FoM. However, she considered that the four documents in contention should be withheld, as it was not in the public interest to release them.

From the documents made available, it appeared that Minister Madden was ready to release an assessment of the Inquiry Panel report within 2 months of receiving it. We believe that this assessment (not released) accepted the Inquiry Panel recommendations of a low key upgrade to the existing ramp at Bastion Point.

However, some undocumented change caused a planned media release announcing his assessment to be cancelled, and the following 6 months saw the progression of Madden’s office directing the DPCD and Marine Safety Victoria to prepare the Minister’s assessment that rejected the Panel findings.

This was despite the efforts of the Executive Director of Planning Policy at the DPCD, who wrote to Madden’s office in relation to a lower impact proposal that had already been suggested by SBPC:

“I suspect that their proposition would support a sensible upgrade of existing launch site – which is what I think most people in Mallacoota thought they were supporting many moons ago when asked if they supported an upgraded facility.

There is a practical solution here where probably $1m – $2m could be allocated to enhance the boat ramp, fix the car parking, … without taking on the huge recurrent costs and impacts that are likely with any other option.. Win Win.”

It is to be hoped that the current government will apply the practical solution suggested by DPCD.