After seven months before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), the Australian Conservation Foundation has won its case for the release of key documents regarding the decision to fast-track 15 commercial projects in the name of post-COVID economic recovery.
The government has now released all the documents ACF requested. The documents relate to the Federal Government’s decision to fast-track 15 projects, including Santos’ controversial Narrabri gas project in NSW.
Emails from July 2020 show the NSW government asked for Narrabri to “be removed from the PM’s list” because “any impression that the outcome of the IPC [the NSW Independent Planning Commission] process is pre-determined could undermine public trust in the process.”
A senior official in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet replied: “In terms of ensuring public confidence in decision-making processes, I think that can be managed effectively through ensuring the messaging is appropriately deferential to where things are at in the relevant approval process.”
The Narrabri gas project subsequently appeared on the list of projects to be fast-tracked.
The NSW Independent Planning Commission gave Santos’ project ‘phased approval’ in September 2020.
“Delays and redactions are increasingly being used to slow or block access to important information about environmental decisions and how those decisions are being made,” said Jolene Elberth, Democracy Campaigner at ACF.
“These documents, which reveal something of the rushed and messy process behind 15 projects being given priority treatment, should never have been kept secret from the public.
“The fact that the Minister eventually released all of the documents only once ACF took this case to the AAT shows the FOI system is not working in the public interest.
“Australians have a right to know how our governments make decisions about protecting or not protecting the environment we all share. ACF will seek costs in this matter.”
The government attempted to use five different exemption categories to prevent the release of the documents. It has now effectively conceded none of the exemptions apply by releasing all the information ACF first requested in July 2020.
ACF was represented at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal by barristers Geoffrey Watson SC and Diana Tang, instructed by Environmental Justice Australia and supported by Grata Fund.
ACF’s Access Denied report revealed the increasing use of refusals, delays, redactions and higher charges to limit access to key decisions about the environment.