23 March 2023

Inquiries, redactions and the drip: ACT Government is keeping public in the dark

| Ian Bushnell
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Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson

Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson says there will more updates, but with three investigations underway, don’t bet on it. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

The week has not been a good one for the ACT Government when it comes to being open with the public.

A serious privacy breach at Canberra Health Services only came to light when it was leaked to the media, even though Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson knew of it early last month.

A report into the “systemic issues” between the sacked Heritage Council and ACT Heritage released under Freedom of Information legislation was so heavily redacted to be almost meaningless.

And two Assembly committee reports called on the government to be more forthcoming about the costs and timeframes of its light rail projects.

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The privacy breach in which whole clinical records of mental health patients were emailed to an “industrial partner”, since revealed to be the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation’s ACT branch, has been referred to police and now the ACT Integrity Commission, which is the end of that discussion.

It is a time-honoured practice of governments to refer an issue to an investigation (usually lengthy) and then shut up shop. By the time a report has been released, most of us have moved on, or at least governments hope that is the case.

The advent of the ACT’s own anti-corruption commission, which one should note is a good thing, has given new power to this approach.

Of course, it’s all very well to refer matters, but does the Integrity Commission have the resources to investigate them in a timely fashion?

In this case, it will first have to decide whether to proceed.

No doubt it will have more material to work with than the public does.

On Tuesday, the story broke, on Wednesday CHS CEO Dave Peffer revealed in a media interview, not a general announcement, that one staff member had already been sacked and two stood down, with pay presumably, as well as the referral to the Integrity Commission.

Yesterday, Ms Davidson updated the Assembly, “now that the families and patients involved have received more of these details”, and named the ANMF.

Patient records had also been shared with “other private email accounts”.

The three staff members’ cases have been referred to the Public Sector Standards Commissioner for an independent investigation.

That’s three investigations that we know of.

So many questions remain.

Why the nurses union? How did it use the material? Could it have something to do with its more aggressive campaign on staffing levels and other issues?

The nurses union says the disclosures were common practice and lawful, and has put the matter in the hands of its lawyers.

Ms Davidson has assured the public that she will provide further updates as they come to hand from CHS.

But, given the investigations, don’t expect the government to be too forthcoming.

Rebecca Vassarotti

ACT Heritage Minister Rebecca Vassarotti cites privacy issues for wholesale redaction of report. Photo: Region.

In the blue between the ACT Heritage, a government agency, and the now-defunct ACT Heritage Council, an independent statutory body, Ms Davidson’s fellow Green, Minister Rebecca Vassarotti, is defending redacting a report on privacy grounds.

“I have worked to ensure that the privacy, safety and welfare of the members of the Heritage Council and the current ACT Heritage officials who contributed to the review is protected,” she said.

Could not the names have only been redacted to do this? Do they really need to be protected? And in any case, should they not be held accountable for what has had wide implications in the planning and development sectors and risks to heritage sites?

It is either an overcautious approach or a case of deliberately hiding information that is in the public interest.

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As for light rail, the issues are nothing new, and the committee reports’ recommendations are likely to be met with a stone wall.

The government has always refused to be pinned down on cost estimates or construction timeframes, ostensibly due to commercial reasons as it negotiates contracts.

Unfortunately, this leaves the public guessing about what they are up for, and while successive elections have backed light rail, it doesn’t mean the government has been given a blank cheque or an open-ended timetable to do the job.

It also leaves the government susceptible to speculative claims, such as the $3 billion price tag the Canberra Liberals are waving about for stage 2B, which it has now decided not to support.

All in all, it adds to the impression that unless the media get a whiff of something, you are not going to hear about it, and when you do, information will either be drip-fed on a schedule or dribble out.

For a government committed to transparency, this one should do better.

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Labor for over twenty years and people still complain but keep voting for them.

‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’
Albert Einstein.

GrumpyGrandpa7:42 pm 25 Mar 23

It’s ridiculous to say “while successive elections have backed light rail”. No where in the free world, has a party fought & won an election with only one policy.

The reality is that in a left-leaning town with proportional representation, the ALP/Greens would have been elected with or without LR.

I’m calling 2024 now. The existing government will be reelected, regardless of performance or policy.

Trevor Willis4:41 pm 24 Mar 23

Who gave these people a responsible job without them taking any responsibility for their actions?

As someone who knows; the public only get to see and hear but a fraction of the shenanigans that go on in the ACT Government. ‘Open’ Government does not exist in the ACT.

The parliamentary agreement between Labor and Greens lists several points for administrative reforms, including point 3 “Increasing open and transparent access to government information, thereby reducing the need for Freedom of Information Act applications”. Perhaps they should add “only when it isn’t embarrassing”.

Stephen Saunders7:58 am 24 Mar 23

Fair comment. Why the nurses’ union? The government must know. But they’re not saying.

Louise Thompson11:19 am 24 Mar 23

I’m not sure about the high level political interests but there is certainly an agenda with some of the staff and the said union. It is certainly not in the interests of any patients. If people call for the heads of politicians and staff involved, I hope that extends to those union reps that received the records.

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