Image for Forestry Tasmania wins secrecy bid on the costs of Going Bush

A Supreme Court judge has upheld a Forestry Tasmania appeal against a decision of the Ombudsman requiring the disclosure of the costs of the Going Bush television series to Greens MP, Kim Booth. In his 19-page ruling, Justice Porter determined that the Ombudsman had erred in directing Forestry Tasmania to disclose the costs of the series.

In March 2009 Booth sought access under the Freedom of Information Act to records relating to Forestry Tasmania’s sponsorship of the series. Over the next 18 months, Forestry Tasmania resisted disclosing the total costs of the series at every turn.

In response to his request, Forestry Tasmania released some of the requested information but claimed the remaining material was exempt on the grounds that it would place both Southern Cross Television and the government-owned company at a “competitive disadvantage” in future negotiations. Booth appealed against Forestry Tasmania’s decision to the Ombudsman, who ruled in his favour. In response, Forestry Tasmania appealed against the Ombudsman’s decision to the Supreme Court.

While the immediate effect of the decision is to keep the exact cost of the three series aired to date secret, it is believed that Forestry Tasmania has spent between $1 and $1.5 million to date for the series.

Justice Porter also ruled that an affidavit submitted by Forestry Tasmania’s Executive General Manager, Dr. Hans Drielsma, in support of the agency Supreme Court appeal, would also remain confidential.

Counsel for Forestry Tasmania, John McDonald, requested an order for costs against the Attorney General’s Department, which acted on behalf of the Ombudsman. However, the Attorney General’s department requested the matter be deferred until it was decided whether they would contest Forestry Tasmania’s costs bid.

Outside the court, Booth expressed disappointment at the decision. “I think it is extraordinary that Forestry have gone to these lengths to hide form the public how much public money that they have wasted on what is clearly a political campaign,” he said. He said that it was important that the information be made public “so that Forestry or any other government agency are not able to act as a quasi political arm or waste public money on on political campaigns as this clearly was.”

As Booth’s application was made under the 1991 Freedom of Information Act, Justice Porters decision relates to the provisions of the old legislation. Booth queried whether the new Right to Information legislation, which came into effect on July 1 and has a more detailed public interest test public interest test governing disclosure, would make the public release of the information more likely.

Booth said that he hoped the Attorney General’s Department would review the decision with an eye to an appeal.

Despite the setback, Booth vowed to keep seeking the information. “Eventually I’ll get the information one way or another,” he said.

Forestry Tasmania welcomedwelcomed the decision, claiming in a media release that “it sometimes is not in the public interest to put FT at a commercial disadvantage by allowing this information to be known by customers and competitors”.

Earlier on Tasmanian Times:
Forestry challenges order to disclose costs, April 19, 2010. HERE
Thank you Ken, but how much is it costing us? March 30, 2010. HERE
Forestry Tasmania goes bush ... and hides the cost, April 19, 2010.HERE

Other media reports
Forestry wins court battle to conceal costs, ABC News.HERE
Secret cost of tax-funded TV show, The Mercury

Forestry Tasmania media release

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