The unusual series of interconnected events that began six years ago with the Indigenous Land Corporation’s purchase of Ayers Rock Resort raises yet another interesting question, this time about online record keeping on the corporate side of the public sector.
To what extent do such government entities have a responsibility to maintain an accurate and impartial public record of their taxpayer-funded operations?
At present, websites remain one of the biggest elements of any government agency’s public image and are the first port of call for any information they could be expected to provide. While the push to get rid of individual websites for each federal agency in favour of a central point of contact makes sense for service delivery, little has been said about the value of having easily accessible documents of public record.
It would be odd for the appointment of a new department secretary, perhaps with a couple of deputies following them across from their previous job, to precipitate the removal of key documents and statements from before their time. But on the corporate side of the Commonwealth public sector, that is what former ILC chair Dawn Casey and other past directors believe the corporation has done in the past couple of years.
The ILC moved to a lovely new website recently “and as part of that exercise a whole lot of old content was removed from the previous site” according to its spokesperson.
But there is more to it than that. The disappearance of documents of public record from the ILC’s web domain has also created the strong impression of a deliberate effort to airbrush an awkward time, when its then-directors were at odds with Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion.
Scullion has made it clear he is sick of hearing about the Ayers Rock Resort purchase. In April, he tried to discredit the previous leadership’s campaign as “political games and conspiracy theories” that are “all about impugning the [ILC] and Australian government”.
The minister was forced into making this statement following The Mandarin’s reporting of internal ILC documents that show how keen he was for the new ILC board, chaired by Eddie Fry, to help him gloss over his dispute with their defiant predecessors. He initially ignored five specific questions we put to him in a response that consisted of four bland dot-points.
It looks very much like the new board and senior staff felt pressured by the minister to change the past board’s final annual report. Scullion argues he only ever made reasonable requests of its board to “consider how it might respond” to unspecified “inaccuracies” in Casey’s opening statement. He also claims, improbably, that the long list of internal emails and draft statements themselves do not accurately reflect this.
Scullion did not want the annual report to be tabled with Casey’s statement, but eventually agreed to let it come out months late with an unusual rejoinder from Fry — although he was not on the ILC board for any of the year the report covered — in which he pledges to let the matter drop:
“The Board has taken a decision not to pursue any further investigation into the original purchase of the resort, and will be guided by the findings of reviews already undertaken.”
Casey wondered why, not long after her term ended, press releases from her time about the Ayers Rock Resort matter started being removed from the ILC website. In March, she successfully used a freedom-of-information request to have nine of them put back, although they are now hidden away at the bottom of the ILC FOI log.
In this process, the ILC has also removed a more significant document — the online version of a report by McGrath Nicol, a consultancy the corporation paid to investigate the doubtful deal — and it is still nowhere to be found in the public domain.
The review that informed that report formed one of the key reasons Scullion gave for blocking a government inquiry into the transaction; the minister argued it had already been investigated and wasn’t worth going over again.
The corporation’s spokesperson happily sent The Mandarin a copy of a now-deleted press release in a matter of moments that summarised the report’s findings, and also included a link to the full report, which is now dead.
Other much older press releases from 2010 and 2011 about far more minor topics remain on the website, giving further credence to Casey’s suspicions, so we asked if any content was no longer available for “any other reason at all” and one more question:
“Are there any technological issues, such as costs, insufficient web storage capacity, or the website slowing down, that have curtailed the ILC’s ability to maintain a full archive of such documents its website once hosted and which it paid for with public money?”
The spokesperson then offered a strange clarification — their statement about old content not being re-uploaded during the transition to the new website was “related to reports not press releases” — and added:
“You will note that all outdated reports have been removed from the new website. There are no technological issues with the new website.”
However, the ILC never answered our question about whether there were any reasons at all, other than moving to a new website, for the removal of any type of content. So we repeated it, and this time got no reply.