Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick is asking about the PMC’s handling of FOI requests, after a leaked information commissioner report revealed in 2017-18 only 35% were answered within statutory time limits.
Stephanie Foster suggested the poor result was caused by 87 requests lobbing in two days before the Christmas New Year shutdown, causing “some strain”.
The OAIC report will be published shortly, but Foster runs through the main recommendations:
- An all staff statement, to note the pro disclosure emphasis in act.
- The objects of the act be promoted through FOI training, and in inductions and refreshers.
- Develop and provide administrative access to information.
- Within three months, we review and update our FOI processing to address findings.
- Improve search and retrieval timeliness, by escalating sooner when there is a delay of documents from another section.
“All of those things are in place,” she said, boasting that “a range of documentary and behavioural changes” have occurred since 2017-18.
Since the “very bad time” when the department was not meeting its obligations, there have been “very high levels” of meeting timelines. This calendar year, the department claims it is 100% compliant, with no overdue requests.
Last financial year, 90.2% of requests were met in time, which Foster describes as “huge progress in two years”.
Back in environment estimates, the Department of Awe (agriculture, water and the environment) has clarified an earlier statement that a staff member had been seconded to the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA).
We posted about this earlier. Dean Knudson, deputy secretary leading the environment protection group, this morning described the arrangement as a secondment after being questioned by Greens Senator Larissa Waters.
Knudson said he had since received information that it was not a secondment – the person in question had taken leave without pay from the department. This is also how the Minerals Council has described the arrangement.
Knudson said: “They have sought outside employment with the MCA. Part of the conditions of that are that the individual will have no access to departmental systems and (be) bound by confidentiality.
“Their pay and conditions (are) up to the MCA. The role that individual takes is up to their discussions with the MCA. But we do understand that the work includes the MCA submission on the EPBC (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) review.”
Waters earlier said it was perverse that a staff member from the department could be writing submissions on revising environment laws on behalf of the lobby group for “big coal, big gas and big oil”.
We’re none the wiser about what a cryptic handwritten note that has emerged during the Angus Taylor grasslands affair actually means.
To recap: energy minister, Angus Taylor asked for at least one meeting with departmental officials in 2017 about the protection of native grasslands, known as a listing, at the time a Taylor family company was under investigation for illegally clearing grasslands.
This carries a maximum penalty of over $1m.
But there were no notes taken at that meeting by any of the bureaucrats present.
A handwritten record of a conversation between senior departmental officer and someone in the minister’s office, written a few weeks later is intriguing.
“Heads up. Minister keen to see Angus Taylor’s requests accommodated.”
So what did Taylor ask for? The question was asked multiple times.
According to Dean Knudson the deputy secretary, that question has been answered in the past.
The note related to the concerns raised by farmers about the communications surrounding the grasslands listing, he said.
Another put it this way: “There was an interest from Minister Frydenberg (then environment minister) to put better information into the farming community about the grasslands listing. The minister’s staffer also asked for information regarding what would be needed to change the thresholds [that determined whether the grasslands were protected or not.]
But they insisted this was not what Taylor was asking for.
Thirty months on, the Jamland case is still “being actively managed” and the department is “close to closing it” but because it is still an active case, the department cannot comment on it.
Nor can we FOI the case file while it’s an ongoing matter. We’ve tried.
“There is no pressure from the government in relation to this case at all,” said Knudson.