Monthly Archives: May 2019

How much does the NSW government spend on major tourism events? It won’t say

Destination NSW, the state government’s tourism and events agency, has been reluctant to disclose information about how it spends money on events and shows.Photo: Louise KennerleyWhat are the bureaucrats at Destination NSW so determined to hide?

For more than three years, public servants working for the state government’s tourism and events agency have fought tooth and nail to suppress information about how much it spends on parties and shows.

They have been criticised by fellow public servants from the Information and Privacy Commission and in twoscathing decisions from the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal for not following FoI laws.

In the process Destination NSW (DNSW) has spent more than $100,000 on lawyers to fight theHerald’s freedom of information request – money that would buy a lot of fireworks for New Year’s Eve or more fancy lights for Vivid Sydney.

In a decision delivered last week, Senior Member Deborah Dinnen ordered DNSW to disclose documents revealing how it lands major tourism events and how much it spends on them. She rejected the agency’s argument that it was not in the public interest to disclose information regarding the funding of events and key organisations such as the Sydney Festival and Art Gallery of NSW.

Dinnenalso criticised the agency’s approach to requests for information made under theNSW Freedom of Information law, known as the Government Information (Public Access) Act.

“There will always be a tension between market competition and open and accessible government, but the GIPA Act places obligations on government to ensure that access to information takes precedence, by placing the presumption on disclosure,” Dinnen said. “[DNSW]’s attitude throughout the course of dealing with this access application indicates that it does not understand, or is in disagreement with the correct application of these obligations.”

She also criticised the agency for refusing to grant access to documents without identifying why specific information should be withheld: “This approach attempts to short-cut the balancing exercise required by correct application of the GIPA Act.”

Shedding light on funding decisionsDavid Shoebridge, NSW Greens Upper House MP, says DNSW’s determination not to release information was one of the clearest examples of “just how broken our laws are”.

“This matter really exposes how agencies that are fighting against transparency game the system,” he says. “They game it with internal delays. They engage in protracted, often unmeritorious legal battles and even when they’re found to be clearly at fault by the tribunal they still don’t release the information.”

Penny Sharpe, Labor’s spokeswoman for tourism and major events, says: “The Berejiklian government operates a regime that is more about freedom from information than giving the public access to information about the work and expenditure of the NSW government.”

So what are the skeletons that DNSW is afraid to let out of its closet?

In April 2015, theHeraldrequested information about how much money DNSW had contributed to events such as Vivid Sydney, New Year’s Eve celebrations, and Sydney Festival as well as various musicals and stage productions.Documents that would shed light on how these funding decisions are made were also sought.

Some of the events supported by DNSW have been successful, others have been ridiculed by critics and shunned by audiences.

Vivid Sydney, for example, has grown into one of the city’s biggest cultural events. Premier Gladys Berejiklian said 2.3 million attended the 2017 festival, and asserted that overseas and international visitors had injected $143 million into the state’s economy. The festival is owned, managed and produced by DNSW.

However,The Addams Familymusical, which received funding from DNSW, closed early in 2013 after poor ticket sales, andproducers of the show werelocked in a battle over pay and conditions with its production crew,theHeraldreported in 2013.

It is not the only dud investment made by the agency.NSW taxpayers lost at least $1 millionin 2016 after the Sydney Sings festival, spruikedby Leo Schofield, was cancelled.

A DNSW spokesman refused to confirm the amount of money given to Sydney Sings, saying it was “commercial in confidence”.

That is anexcuse trotted outto avoid telling taxpayers how much money is spent on events, according to Shoebridge. “If a private entity wants to contract with a government agency and receives taxpayers’ money there should be an expectation of complete transparency.”

Sharpe says: “While there are some legitimate commercial concerns in relation to Destination NSW, that should not be an excuse to refuse to provide information that is in the public interest.”

DNSW is not just in the business of fun and games.Residents of Newcastle Easthave been fighting the agency’s secrecy for years to obtain details about the Newcastle 500 Supercars event, which they claim has harmed local businesses, damaged their homes, affected the health of vulnerable people and disrupted their lives.

In her forthcoming bookWrong Track: What Drove Supercars to Newcastle, Christine Everingham writes:”The Newcastle 500 clearly illustrates how state sponsored – yet privately owned – major events, provide the perfect cover for deals to be done without the inconvenience of public scrutiny.”

DNSW has an annual budget of $159.7 million, according to its 2016-17 annual report. Its chief executive Sandra Chipchase was paid $452,250 (plus allowances). The annual report also lists the agency’s hefty expenses such as “advertising” ($30.9 million) and “promotion” ($95.2 million).

DNSW rebuffedtheHerald’s request for documents about its spending, claiming an “overriding public interest” against disclosing why and how much it spent on these events, triggering the long-running quest to uncoverdocuments how it spends taxpayers’ money.

Years of requesting internal and external reviews, sending endless emails and an official complaint about the agency’s tardiness in responding have led, on more than one occasion, to a windowless rooms in the John Maddison Tower in Sydney’s CBD where theHeraldand DNSW’s team of lawyers put their arguments before the tribunal.

‘It can be years of delay’

Some secrets may be worth keeping for reasons of defence or security. But should the amount of money spent on imported musicals, Vivid’s light shows or the New Year’s Eve fireworks also be a state secret?

A DNSW spokeswoman gave up one piece of the funding jigsaw in May, revealing the agency spent about $6.8 million on the lights component of this year’s Vivid. “The total cost of Vivid Sydney includes a mix of government funding from other NSW government agencies, private enterprise events (more than 600) and commercial sponsorship,” she says.

Under NSW’s FoI law, there is a presumption in favour of disclosing government information. It also gives members of the public an enforceable legal right to ask for information and various avenues to appeal a decision.However, those laws provide enough excuses for public servants to keep their secrets, take inordinate amounts of time to make decisions or seek tocharge high feesfor searching and photocopying documents.

Figures compiled by the Information and Privacy Commissionsuggest the NSW government is becoming more secretive: “Across all departments and sampled smaller agencies the desktop audit found that compliance with the mandatory proactive release requirements had declined to 76 per cent, compared with 89 per cent in 2015-16.”

The number of FoI requests made in NSW was 14,651 in 2015-16 – less than half the 34,249 requests made in Victoria, according to theNational FoI Metrics dashboard. NSW bureaucrats also refused a far higher percentage of FoI requests than their counterparts in Victoria.

Shoebridge says government agencies and departments seek to avoid handing over information that is time-sensitive: “It’s not just months of delay, it can be years of delay to get the most basic information.”

Sharpe is not impressed with the operation of the state’s FoI law either.“Every request is met with delay, defer and the charging of exorbitant amounts of money to release basic information,” she says.“In some cases public servants claim they don’t have the resources to process the requests. This is completely unacceptable and is forcing more and more appeals to NCAT.”

A spokeswoman for theNSW Department of Justice said she could not comment on individual cases but a review concluded last year that the state’s FoI laws were “well-supported and are operating efficiently”.

“However, it also made a number of recommendations to provide greater clarity about the operation and objectives of the GIPA Act and [Government Information (Information Commissioner)] GIIC Act, to benefit from agencies and applicants, and to help ensure the Acts continue to promote open government in NSW,” she said. “The report is currently under consideration by the NSW government.”

Matthew Mason-Cox, a Liberal Upper House MP,said in April the state governmenthad developed a “perverse culture of secrecy” that threatened the public’s confidence in its decision-making over issues such as the Powerhouse Museum and redevelopment of football stadiums.

Concerns have also been raised about government secrecy at afederal level.

Judgements handed downDinnen delivered her first judgement in September 2017 that appeared to vindicate theHerald’s efforts to access information that the law presumes should be made available.

“In circumstances where the information is sought by the Applicant for the purpose of investigative journalism into the funding of and by Destination NSW, I consider that the public interest considerations in favour of disclosure carry significant weight … ,” she said.

Shoebridge says the tribunal’s judgment had highlighted flaws in the agency’s handling of the FoI request.“What really annoyed me when I read the decision was just how amateur they were in saying no,” he said. “They were not just arrogant and dismissive, but they were also incompetent.”

In her latest decision, delivered last week, Dinnen appeared to agree with this assessment, raisingthe possibility of referring the agency to the NSW Ombudsman or Information Commissioner “in relation to systemic agency issues of compliance” with FoI laws.

So will DNSW finally tell NSW taxpayers how it spends their money?

A DNSW spokeswoman said the agency was considering its position.


Morrison stands by Paris climate targets

Scott Morrison is digging in behind the Paris climate change targets, despite calls for to walk away from the global accord.

During his first interview with Sydney radio host Alan Jones, who is no fan of the Paris Agreement, the newly-minted prime minister was repeatedly quizzed about whether he would abandon the international deal.

“I’m not convinced changing it makes any difference one way or the other – that’s the bottom line,” Mr Morrison told 2GB radio on Monday.

met its first round of Paris targets at a canter and the next was out to 2030, he said.

“Now, that discussion isn’t going to change anybody’s electricity prices, and that’s what I’m focused on,” Mr Morrison said.

“I’m not a climate warrior one way or the other. What I’m about is getting people’s electricity prices down.”

Mr Morrison said he would not do as Labor proposed and impose a 45 per cent emissions reductions target.

“My measure is not looking to get any sort of cheer squad jumping up and down for me when it comes to Paris one way or the other,” he said.

“I’m looking for the cheer squad of mums and dads and pensioners and others seeing their electricity prices go down.”

Mr Morrison said he was focused on building more sources of dispatchable power – generation from coal, gas, batteries and pumped hydro – that can be controlled to balance supply and demand.

“Could you stop using the word dispatchable? Out there they don’t understand it,” Jones said.

“Well, real power, okay? Real, fair dinkum power,” the prime minister fired back.

“Reliable, keeps the lights on, all of that. That’s what I’m about, I’m about fair dinkum power.”

Reuters reporters jailed in Myanmar

Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo, left, and Wa Lone, have been jailed for seven years in Myanmar.A Myanmar judge has found two Reuters journalists guilty of breaching a law on state secrets and jailed them for seven years, prompting international condemnation.

Yangon northern district judge Ye Lwin said Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, breached the colonial-era Official Secrets Act when they obtained confidential documents.

The judge said time served since the pair were detained on December 12 would be taken into account.

The defence can appeal the decision to a regional court and then the supreme court.

The verdict comes amid mounting pressure on the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi over a security crackdown sparked by attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents on security forces in Rakhine State in west Myanmar in August 2017.

More than 700,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims have fled into Bangladesh since then, according to UN agencies.

Press freedom advocates, the UN, the European Union and countries including the US, Canada and had called for the journalists’ acquittal.

Reuters editor in chief Stephen J Adler said in a statement it was a sad day for the press everywhere.

“We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum.”

The reporters had told the court two police officials handed them papers at a restaurant in the city of Yangon moments before other officers arrested them.

One police witness testified the restaurant meeting was a set-up to entrap the journalists to block or punish them for their reporting of a mass killing of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine.

The court determined that “confidential documents” found on the two would have been useful “to enemies of the state and terrorist organisations”.

Wa Lone, in handcuffs and flanked by police, told a cluster of friends and reporters after the verdict not to worry.

“We know we did nothing wrong. I have no fear. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom,” he said.

Kyaw Soe Oo said they would maintain their fight for press freedom and the government should not “close the eyes and ears of the people”.

US ambassador Scot Marciel said the “deeply troubling” verdict could undermine the confidence the Myanmar people had in the justice system.

“Unbelievable! More and more, responsible journalism is found to be a crime in Myanmar!” Yanghee Lee, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said on Twitter.

British ambassador Dan Chugg, speaking on behalf of EU members, said the verdict had “dealt a hammer blow for the rule of law”.

The European Union on Monday called for the immediate and unconditional release of two journalists

They were arrested on December 12 while investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya men and boys and other abuses involving soldiers and police in Inn Din, a village in Rakhine State.

Myanmar has denied allegations of atrocities made by refugees against its security forces, saying it conducted a legitimate counterinsurgency operation against Muslim militants.

But the military acknowledged the killing of the 10 Rohingya at Inn Din after arresting the Reuters reporters.

A UN-mandated fact-finding mission said last week that Myanmar’s military carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Muslim Rohingya with “genocidal intent” and called for top generals to be prosecuted.

Myanmar rejected the findings.

Usain Bolt not fit enough for the A-League: Mariners coach

Usain Bolt had his first hit-out with the Central Coast Mariners against a Central Coast Select XI.Both Usain Bolt and his coach Mike Mulvey agree on one thing.He isn’t fit enough to play in the A-League.

But that’s not to say he can’t get there, with two months before the season kick-off.

Central Coast gave Bolt 20 minutes of action in a hyped pre-season run on Friday night in Gosford.

The 32-year-old played on the left wing. He didn’t look out of place but didn’t impress.

The eight-times Olympic champion is in the unenviable position of having a microscope over his every move as he tries to adjust to a second sporting career.

Mulvey said judgements on his Bolt’s ability would need to come after a fitness program.

“In all seriousness he’s not fit,” Mulvey told the Nine Network.

“No athletics coach will actually get you to accelerate, decelerate and with multi-directional movement like there is in football.

“He struggles with that right now.”

Having handed the Jamaican a trial, the Mariners are committed to giving Bolt every chance to make it in the league.

Even if they are forced to make the tough call to cut their high-profile recruit, they say Bolt’s time on the Central Coast has been a success.

“He’s absolutely determined, we’re loving him being here on the coast and he’s loving being a part of a team environment,” Mulvey said.

“The positive aspects so much outweigh the negatives.”

The Mariners commence their A-League campaign on October 21 against Brisbane Roar.

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Jackman, Kidman lead Oscar acting races

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman are creating some Oscars buzz with their latest movie roles.As the 45th annual Telluride Film Festival begins to wind down, the landscape of lead acting Oscar contenders is beginning to materialise in the early days of the film awards season.

On the actress side, Nicole Kidman is turning a lot of heads with her de-glammed performance in Karyn Kusama’s uneven noir Destroyer.

The film has been a bit divisive, but most agree that the n Oscar winner, 51, delivers in a role completely unlike anything she’s ever tackled. It’s a true anti-heroine, though, a character that could put some viewers off. But it’s thrilling to see Kidman go to such a bold and dangerous place at this stage in her career.

Fox Searchlight has at least a pair of possibilities, maybe a third if the reigning best-picture champ opts to widen the net for The Favourite. Yorgos Lanthimos’ outrageous period-piece comedy has critics going gaga (though that could fade somewhat if it becomes a love-it/hate-it film in the season).

The performances from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone (receiving a tribute here at the fest) and Rachel Weisz are outstanding, but at the moment it appears Colman’s uproarious depiction of Queen Anne is the leading contender. She’s been rather universally declared the stand-out, but like her two co-stars, it’s a role that could be perceived as supporting.

If either of the other two ladies gets the upgrade, it would be Stone as Abigail Masham, one of the queen’s intimate companions. The 29-year-old knows how to grab the spotlight when she’s on camera, and indeed, that’s what the film is about in some ways.

Also from Searchlight is Can You Ever Forgive Me?, with Melissa McCarthy as author Lee Israel. Israel, who was struggling for work in the early 1990s, found herself the most unlikely of criminals when she launched a campaign of forging (and stealing) intimate letters from famed writers like Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman, then selling them at top dollar. Marielle Heller has made a charming film that expertly balances drama and comedy, and McCarthy delivers her best performance to date as the scorned and conflicted Israel. (Watch for Robert E. Grant in the supporting actor race as a rowdy friend and confidante.)

In the lead actor arena, Robert Redford highlights an assortment of star players. His swan-song work in David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun could contend if that into-the-sunset narrative really takes hold. It’s not that the performance really stands-out in his filmography — after all, it’s built on the charm and charisma of so many of his other turns throughout the years — but it taps the nostalgia beautifully, and moreover, his chemistry with Sissy Spacek is too delightful to resist.

In Damien Chazelle’s First Man, Ryan Gosling tackles the role of astronaut Neil Armstrong with a kind of stoic ease. It’s a bit more passive than the stuff that usually pops for Academy voters, but it’s no less compelling. There are no “Oscar clip” moments, but so much drive and grief and pain is happening beneath the surface. Co-star Claire Foy brings the electricity, though, and could be a better bet in supporting actress.

Finally, director Jason Reitman wrangles with a number of zeitgeist-y themes in The Front Runner, about politician Gary Hart’s failed campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination of 1988. Hugh Jackman nails the role and all its naivete as Hart struggles under the spotlight of a press obsessed with his private dalliances.

Other performances of note include Victor Polster in Lukas Dhont’s transgender portrait Girl, Lukas Hedges in Joel Edgerton’s gay conversion therapy drama Boy Erased and even the late John Huston in Orson Welles’ finally completed The Other Side of the Wind, among others.