A NSW department initially requested the federal government remove the Narrabri Gas Project from a list of developments it wanted to fast track, emails revealed under freedom of information show.
While public servants eventually agreed the project could join the list, an advocacy group that fought to see the emails says a drawn-out legal process shows the “FOI system is not working”.
The federal government had announced in June last year it would fast-track 15 developments in a bid to help drive an infrastructure recovery during the pandemic, including for the gas project in northwest NSW.
The emails show the NSW department of premier and cabinet wrote to counterparts in the department of prime minister and cabinet raising issues including that the NSW Independent Planning Commission was yet to weigh the project up.
“NSW has concerns about an imminent announcement re Narrabri Gas Project and have requested it be removed from the PM’s list,” a NSW public servant wrote in July 2020.
“Any impression that the outcome of the IPC process is pre-determined could undermine public trust in the process.”
A public servant from the department of prime minister and cabinet dismissed the concerns, saying that public confidence in the decision-making process could be “managed effectively” through messaging that highlighted the announcement was different to where approvals were at.
“I’m not sure inclusion in the major projects list materially alters the public perception of the project being supported by both governments as a priority, subject of course to relevant regulatory approvals,” he wrote.
The NSW public servant then said the department was “comfortable” with the project being included in the announcement as long as language reflected the state’s planning process.
Energy company Santos received ‘phased approval’ for the project from the planning commission in September.
The Australian Conservation Foundation, which was behind a bid in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to make the documents public, says the protracted process shows the freedom of information system “not working in the public interest”.
A seven-month attempt to force the government, which had claimed the documents were protected by a range of exemptions, ended with the documents eventual release, the ACF says.
Jolene Elberth, from the ACF, said delays and redactions were increasingly used to slow or block access to information about environmental decisions.
“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,” Elberth said.
Federal government agencies and ministers received 16% fewer FOI requests in 2020-21 than the previous financial year, according to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, but the number of requests decided were 9% fewer than in 2020-19.
Just 41% of FOI requests were granted in full, down from 47% in 2019–20 and 52% in 2018-19.
The FOI Act gives agencies and ministers 30 days to make a decision on a request but allows for extensions in some circumstances.
Last financial year, 77% of all FOI requests determined were processed within the applicable statutory time period, the OAIC recorded.