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Australia's political system is as broken as our environment

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The Australian Government seems intent on keeping information out of the hands of the public (Image by Dan Jensen)

The Government is making it difficult for the public to access information on the destruction of our environment, writes Sue Arnold.

IMAGINE a 1.8 metre thick brick wall, impossible to scale over or penetrate. That’s the reality of our current democracy. An indestructible barrier.

The public are on one side, screaming blue murder and on the other side the screams are just noise. Nothing to bother with. Aside from the odd tap on the wrists by the mainstream media, the dictatorship can go on as normal.

Our political system is broken. Australia’s environment is broken and collapsing.

The politicians we vote for ignore the public with no fear of recrimination. The public is entirely irrelevant. Just keep spouting accountability and transparency as you pass legislation to lock up journalists.

This article deals with the almost complete failure of governments to provide relevant information under the Freedom of Information Act, variously entitled as the Right to Information (RTI) in Queensland and Tasmania. In NSW, GIPA and FOI in Victoria.

Examples below highlight a marathon bureaucratic circus, now governments’ defence against transparency and accountability.

  1. Freedom From Information would be a more appropriate title for these Acts.
  2. A complex web of strategies to ensure the public is denied critical information has been put in place.
  3. Propaganda is a top-level strategy. Releasing carefully selected garbage with nice words (no doubt provided by communication consultants), pretty pictures, lots of soothing stuff that are usually total lies, setting up advisory boards of “experts”, combined with the appointment of scientists whose research and experience have nothing to do with the issue at hand. These boards are designed to ensure that any recommendations can either be used for propaganda purposes or reinterpreted if they are likely to be in the way of development.
  4. Workshops work well as long as they’re either by invitation only or set up for the zombie public with tea, coffee and pretty posters.
  5. Ignoring all peer-reviewed national and international published research that’s in conflict with the Government’s policies is critical.
  6. Ensuring Freedom of Information requests are so expensive and difficult that the punter gives up. Prioritising the rights of corporations, Government departments and commercial interests to endlessly block requests further slowing any transparency.
  7. It’s also important to have a standard Ministerial response letter available to send out to the complaining public, always full of propaganda.

For almost eight months, an attempt has been made to ascertain a population estimate of koalas in Victoria. The Victorian Department of Environment website contains no details of any population estimate.

First off, the Department lost the FOI deposit ensuring almost six weeks of delay until the funds were finally located. The organisation requesting the information was told there’s no population estimate and no estimate in the recent or distant past. 

As Victorian conservation organisations have informed IA that the Government allows major translocations with high mortality, the request was an attempt to get some data. Of particular concern are the mortality and injury figures from eucalypt plantations.

However, koala areas and plantations have been split into many regional offices. In an attempt to define at least one area, the FOI request was narrowed down to the following:

  • a summary report of mortality records from eucalyptus plantations where koalas have been or are located from January 2015-December 2018 including causes of death, injuries, sickness and euthanasia statistics;
  • a summary report of reports of injured koalas in eucalyptus plantations from January 2015-December 2018; and
  • all records of translocations of koalas from January 2015-December 2018 including details of numbers, areas where captured, methods of captures, areas where koalas were translocated, follow up studies, mortality records and details of scientists in charge.

The documents sought are those held in the department’s Barwon South West region.

The response from the Departmental FOI section:

Upon reviewing the material, I am satisfied that the work involved in processing your request would substantially and unreasonably divert the resources of the department from its other operations. This applies in particular to point 3 of your request which is approximately 1,000 pages. The department is satisfied that the work involved in processing your request would substantially and unreasonably divert the resources of the department from its other operations. Accordingly, I invite you to consult with me with a view to amending your request to be in a form that would remove this ground for refusal. Please note in refining your request that access charges are charged at 20 cents per page.

 

Operational Plans

 

There are eight Operational Plans for this period. The Operational plans are around 80 pages each (including appendices). Six of these operational plans relate to translocation programs at Cape Otway, one to Framlingham and one to Kutanitji. The operational plans for each are very similar and cover operational matters such as methods of capture, animal welfare assessment, staff reporting lines and health and safety. Due to the repetitive nature of the documents, and the additional access charges which will accrue, you may wish to confine your request to a copy of a plan for one of the translocation programs.

 

Triage and Translocation Records

 

The triage and translocations are contained in a spreadsheet which is 360 pages long.

One only fact sheet on translocations, euthanised koalas was made available demonstrating an extraordinary  number of translocations, fertility controls and euthanised koalas.

The information requested under the FOI is likely to take until Christmas as the plantation owners can refuse to provide the information, thus further delaying the procedure. Meantime, incredibly, the Victorian Government can’t answer one simple question.

How many koalas are there in Victoria?

The next roadblock favoured by governments is to with-hold the names of “experts” consulted by boards and panels appointed to come up with plans to “save koalas”.

Queensland is a great example. In 2017, the Government set up a Koala Expert Panel. A survey was sent out to 25 members of the Panel to identify key issues.

An RTI request for the names and submissions from the 25 members met the usual brick wall.

No, the names could not be released unless each member agreed for the information to be made available. No, the survey data could not be released nor could the submissions in response be released without consulting each and every expert involved.

The only way any submissions to the survey could be released is if every word that could identify the expert or his/her organisation was deleted. Once again, more delays, more costs, less and less information. In the final analysis, a bunch of anonymous people were brought together ensuring no transparency or public interest right to know anything. 

The NSW Government held a Koala Research Symposium at Taronga Zoo last year. 25 experts were invited to provide submissions which would develop the Koala Research Plan.

No details of the experts were provided in spite of requests at the symposium.

When the final “expert” participants were revealed months later, not one single NGO involved in koala conservation or any recognised koala conservation scientists were on the list.

It was simply a free-for-all for various universities, bureaucrats and scientists who continually receive State or Federal Government grants.

A recent Right to Information on the culling of native animals in Tasmania revealed that more than 12,000 permits had been issued allowing the slaughter of galahs, greens rosellas, wombats and platypuses since 2014.

Further evidence of the extraordinary efforts of governments to hide the wholesale slaughter of our native wildlife.

Every Australian should be concerned.

You can follow Sue Arnold on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

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