Auditor-General Colin Murphy has revealed he is dealing with an unprecedented number of decisions by Barnett Government ministers to keep information secret from Parliament.
The revelation came as he took three ministers to task yesterday for refusing to provide answers in Parliament on major transport and tourism projects, and the value of the East Perth Power Station site, decisions he said were “not reasonable and therefore not appropriate”.
Under section 82 of the Financial Management Act, a minister who decides it is “reasonable and appropriate” not to provide information concerning the conduct or operation of an agency must give notice of this to the Auditor-General, who has oversight of the decision.
Mr Murphy said he had dealt with 14 such section 82 notices so far this year compared with just two to three in each of the previous six years.
“There has been a significant increase,” Mr Murphy said. “It’s an interesting phenomenon.”
In September, Transport Minister Dean Nalder refused a request by Upper House estimates committee chairman Ken Travers to provide a briefing note about an updated program of major transport works that would be funded by the Commonwealth.
Mr Murphy found the Department of Transport decided to withhold the information without considering whether it was in the public interest to release it or seeking advice from other parties about whether it was warranted. A schedule of projects, which the department believed could compromise future tender options if it was released, was made public anyway by the Federal Government.
In November, Tourism Minister Kim Hames refused to provide the total value of incentives associated with the sale of FESA House to BGC to have a hotel developed when asked by Labor’s Margaret Quirk.
Mr Murphy said this information had been disclosed through another agency’s financial statements, in Budget estimates, and through a Freedom of Information request to another agency and therefore was not confidential, as Tourism had asserted.
In March,The West Australian revealed the value of the incentive was $24 million.
And in December, Planning Minister John Day refused to provide a valuation of the East Perth Power Station site when asked by Labor’s Amber-Jade Sanderson.
Mr Murphy said this information was readily available from Landgate and so should not have been kept from Parliament.
However, Mr Murphy said Mr Day’s refusal to provide information about the identity of an unsolicited approach from a potential private buyer was appropriate, as potential buyers would have had a reasonable expectation their approaches would be treated confidentially.
Asked if ministers were too quick to refuse to provide information to Parliament, Mr Murphy said: “We have put that in a number of our reports. In a number of our reports, we’ve said that people have very quickly responded that something is commercial-in-confidence without getting the good advice and making sure of their facts. That is one of the criticisms we’ve levelled.
Largely it’s agencies and advisers who are advising ministers.”
Asked if the surge in section 82 notifications was evidence of a cultural issue within the Government around disclosure, Mr Murphy said: “You can draw that conclusion but I certainly can’t.
“There’s a lot more awareness now about the provision, so it could be that. The other thing is the Opposition is now very aware of it, so if a minister refuses to answer a question, they quite often follow up and ask, ‘Will you be providing a section 82 notice to the Auditor-General’?”
Premier Colin Barnett yesterday defended the Government’s disclosure practices. “Government, because it is a public institution, is in a difficult position on commercial negotiations,” he said.
“I think this Government has been very open.”