NT’s FOI requests knocked back due to ‘fear of producing documents’, Labor MLA says
“Excuses are found why not to produce documents,” says exiled Labor MLA Jeff Collins. (ABC News: Mitch Woolmough)
Exiled Labor MLA Jeff Collins has shed light on the Northern Territory Government’s lack of transparency, blaming a top-heavy public service suffering from an entrenched “fear of producing documents”.
- The Northern Territory has had the highest rates for refusing FOI requests on average across Australia since 2014
- Territory public servants routinely make excuses for why not to produce requested documents, says MLA Jeff Collins
- Attorney-General Natasha Fyles has defended her government’s record on accountability citing the establishment of an ICAC
Figures have revealed the Northern Territory has had the nation’s highest average rate for refusing Freedom of Information (FOI) requests since 2014.
In the year ending June 2018, the Labor Government knocked back 27 per cent of all FOI requests.
The Territory has the highest rate of FOI request refusals in Australia. (Thinkstock: Hemera)
Mr Collins, who was sacked from Labor caucus before Christmas for publicly criticising Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s handling of an ongoing budget crisis, blamed the “public service culture we have here in the Territory” for the concerning statistics.
“We have a public service which is probably too top heavy,” he said.
“I think there’s a bit of a fear of people opening themselves up, and I think that leads to a fear of producing documents.”
He said that routinely when FOI requests were made “excuses are found why not to produce documents” such as not being able to find the requested documents.
“[Or] they put an argument up for privacy or confidentiality, various reasons,” Mr Collins said.
Leaders defend government record
NT Labor came into power in 2016 on a mantle of being an “accountable and transparent” government but has struggled to convince the public of their success in achieving this ambition.
Mr Gunner dismissed Mr Collins’ claims.
“From the Chief Minister down that is not the culture that I support,” he said.
Attorney-General Natasha Fyles pointed to Labor’s establishment of an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) as proof her government was committed to accountability.
“We absolutely understand Territorians want to know what’s happening and they want that transparency, but we also need to respect the processes of the Government,” Ms Fyles said.
“But we certainly believe we’ve put in measures that open up government to transparency from Territorians.”
CLP request knocked back
Opposition Leader Gary Higgins said his Country Liberal Party had been refused an FOI request seeking information about a riot at the Don Dale detention centre in November 2018 which resulted in $750,000 in damages.
“That request has been refused citing, in part, that a police investigation is underway — even though it has been widely reported that eight young offenders have been charged for their role in the riot,” Mr Higgins said in a statement.
“The refusal gives other seemingly frivolous reasons for not releasing the footage, such as the privacy of individuals, although those persons’ identities could be easily obscured through technological means.”
During the CLP’s previous term of government from 2012-2016, in which Mr Higgins served as a minister, FOI refusals were still at rates among the highest in Australia.
The Chief Minister blasted Mr Higgins for publicly criticising his own FOI refusal.
“It is completely irresponsible for Gary Higgins to actively interfere with this court process for political purposes,” Mr Gunner said.
“[It] shows his complete lack of understanding of basic court procedures and a blatant disrespect to our hardworking police officers and this investigation.”
Criticism of politicised public service
Ex-Labor MLA and Charles Darwin University lecturer Ken Parish echoed Mr Collins’ claim that a top-heavy bureaucracy was partially responsible for the refusals.
Ex-Labor MLA Ken Parish blames the NT public service for the perceived lack of transparency. (ABC News: Bridget Judd)
“Over 40 per cent of our public service are managerial and executive public servants, many of whom are on special executive, senior executive service arrangements where they have next to no security of tenure,” Mr Parish said.
“If the Government changes they can and will be sacked so of course they do exactly what they’re told by the political government.
“If you’ve got that situation and you’ve got it heavily politicised, it’s reasonable to suspect that the public servants do what they’re told.
“If the Government of the day, whether it’s Liberal or Labor, wants to hide stuff, they’ll hide it.”