From the Newsroom

‘Freely available’ BLER information not so free

Geoff Helisma|

Accessing information about approved applications to round 2 of the NSW Government’s Bushfire Local Economies Recovery (BLER) fund will not be considered until a formal application is made via the government’s Government Information (Public Access) Act (GIPA).

The Independent first revealed that all was not as stated in December 2020, regarding transparency of the BLER fund, when it reported that Clarece Valley Council (CVC) did not lodge an application for the BLER grant ($2.7million) that helped build the recently completed Shores Drive/Yamba Road roundabout.

Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis subsequently confirmed that it was a case of pork-barrelling by answering, “Absolutely.”

He also said that applications to the recently announced round two of the BLER were “purely assessed at arm’s length from any politician” – however, in reality, the applications were “subject to a decision of Cabinet and may be subject to Cabinet in Confidence provisions”.

The Independent sought access to CVC’s five successful BLER round 2 applications (valued at over $18million), however, CVC responded with advice it received from the Department of Regional NSW (DRNSW): “Although, CVC holds the information, the department … would prefer a consistent approach to the release of this type of information, as the disclosure of certain details is likely to impact our functions.

“Would you please advise the newspaper that all relevant information about the grant applications is held by DRNSW and to make a formal access application directly to DRNSW by filling in the form which can be found on our website.”

Meanwhile, the BLER’s FAQ cites the GIPA Act, which states that it makes information accessible to the public by: “requiring government agencies to make certain sorts of information freely available; encouraging government agencies to release as much other information as possible; giving the public an enforceable right to make access applications for government information; and, restricting access to information only when there is an overriding public interest against disclosure”.

On this basis, an informal request was made – the Department of Regional NSW’s manager of governance and information requests, however, replied: “The information you have requested access to … is not information that the Department of Regional NSW is required to make freely available.

“An informal request for information is usually considered only where there are no public interest considerations against disclosure of the information, the time involved in dealing with the request is minimal, and/or where the public interest considerations in favour of disclosure far outweigh those against disclosure.

“However, where the information belongs to a third party, the GIPA Act requires under section 54 that an agency must consult with that third party before providing access to the information, and the views of the third party is taken into account when balancing the public interest test.

“All applications to Round 2 of the BLER were subject to a decision of Cabinet and may be subject to Cabinet in Confidence provisions.

“The applications also contain sensitive information of the applicants, including bank account details, tax file numbers, commercially sensitive provisions in some instances, and often personal information.

“As such, the applications will need to be carefully reviewed before a decision about release can be made. Such consideration is only able to be made in response to a formal access application.

“Having regard to the above, I refer you to our website, which contains further details about how to access information as well as an application form (copy attached to this email).”

Meanwhile, when Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis was advised that the “arm’s length” documents were not easily accessible because they had been considered by Cabinet, he said, “I know that a lot of MPs jumped on the phone to talk to the Deputy Premier [John Barilaro] to complain about some of the projects they supported that were not successful.

“He [Mr Barilaro] said to the MPs, ‘The applications were all decided at arm’s length, so don’t harass me or my staff about the projects.

“‘They were all done by the responsible state government agency handling the projects, and its federal counterpart.’”