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sydney alternative media - non-profit community independent trustworthy
Friday, 7 September 2007
Great FoI win for greenie, writes Harriet Swift of Chipstop
Mood:  special
Topic: legal

Picture: Jerry Watt at top left of a protest over south coast forests earlier this year 2007, referred to in the Sydney Morning Herald today 7th Sept 07.

 

Hi greenies
The "W" word has finally appeared in the Sydney morning Herald. Twice in fact. Onya Gerry!
You can leave a comment in the SMH blog about this at:
http://blogs.smh.com.au/newsblog/archives/freedom_of_information/015504.html
Please take the time to do that if yoou can.
regards
harriett

[Sydney Morning Herald article follows]

Shiver me timbers: FoI victory for the little man

EVER since a giant woodchip mill was built in Eden a few decades ago, conservationists have been fighting to find out the prices Forests NSW gets for the logs that go through the mill before export to Japan.

Opponents of the mill have long argued that the damage to forests from woodchipping outweighs the value of local jobs and export income the mill provides. It has been a hard argument to prove either way, and it has been further complicated because the prices Forests NSW gets for logs have always been kept secret. However, a remarkable decision by the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal last week could change that.

A South Coast local, Gerry Watt, lodged a freedom of information application with Forests NSW, seeking the separate royalty rates it gets from South East Fibre Exports Pty Ltd, the company that owns the Eden chip-mill, for the pulplogs cut in the southern and Eden regional forestry agreements for 2003-04.

In an entirely predictable response, Forests NSW refused to release the figures on three grounds: the information has a commercial value that could be expected to diminish if released; the information concerns the business, professional, commercial or financial affairs of a company; releasing the information would found an action for breach of confidence.

Given the sensitivity with which government departments typically treat any information that has a dollar sign attached to it, Watt's chances of succeeding in his FoI application looked slim at best.

However, in a 33-page decision last week a tribunal member, Stephen Montgomery, rejected all the exemptions claimed by Forests NSW and dismissed much of the evidence they produced, handing Watt a decisive victory.

Montgomery went a step further. He said that if he was wrong, and some of the exemptions did in fact apply, he needed to consider whether the information should be released, anyway.

This view was prompted by a recent decision in the Supreme Court, University of NSW versus McGuirk, which was a rare ray of light in the dark world of FoI.

That decision says that, even if information is exempt from release, the tribunal can still order it to be released if, on balance, it believes the release is in the public interest.

During the proceedings, Forests NSW told the tribunal that it was definitely not in the public interest for the prices to be disclosed, saying there could be negative socioeconomic consequences for the area, including a drop in pulplog sales, job losses and mill closures.

Watt did not dispute these points but he said there was a public interest in knowing the way different forestry regions are commercially valued and how much private interests paid for logs cut in public forests.

Montgomery also said "the public benefits from truth and transparency, in regard to the management of public assets, assist in public benefit being determined and achieved". Weighing up these two positions, Montgomery said the socioeconomic impact from releasing the royalty rate was "a highly relevant factor" and, if Forests NSW was correct in its assessment of the potential impact, "very strong grounds would need to be found to justify disclosure of the royalty rate".

Then, in a conclusion that stunned everyone who follows freedom of information issues, he added: "In my view, the factors favouring disclosure are sufficiently strong to justify disclosure."

Did you get that? Even though jobs might be lost, mills might close and Forests NSW could be financially disadvantaged, the need for transparency and public debate outweighed such adverse consequences.

"An uninformed public cannot usefully participate in that debate," Mr Montgomery said. "I agree with the applicant that there is a public interest in an informed debate about the most appropriate uses to be made of this publicly owned asset.

"The price at which a publicly owned asset is being sold to private interests is a significant factor in that debate. It is my view that the correct and preferable decision is that the royalty rates should be disclosed."

Forests NSW has 28 days to hand over the information.

Matthew Moore is the Herald's Freedom of Information Editor. Tell him your FoI successes and failures at foi@smh.com.au
Posted by SMH Online
September 6, 2007 12:01 AM

Posted by editor at 11:54 AM NZT
Updated: Friday, 7 September 2007 12:17 PM NZT

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