The South Coast Hunters Club's (SCHC) attempt to prevent public release of any of its Huntfest licence application has been rejected by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) in a decision that was handed down in Sydney last week .
“SAFE (Stop Arms Fairs in Eurobodalla Inc.) has tried to bring proper public scrutiny and transparency to the dealings between the Hunters Club and the Eurobodalla Shire Council over the Council's highly controversial approval of the Huntfest event in Narooma,” SAFE President, Heather Irwin, said.
“The Eurobodalla Shire Council approved the Huntfest licence through until 2022 in a 'closed' session in March 2016, in a process that lacked transparency and clearly breached the Local Government Act as well as many important State Government policies and instructions”.
Following that approval, SAFE requested a copy of the Huntfest licence application under freedom of information laws. The Council refused the request, even when the Information Commissioner issued a 13-page criticism of the refusal. However, after SAFE took the matter to NCAT, the Council agreed to release part of the licence application.
At that point, the South Coast Hunters Club (SCHC) lodged an objection to the release of any part of the document. Their objection has now been “thrown out of court” by NCAT, following a full day’s hearing in Sydney last year, with a decision handed down last Thursday.
“This has been a 'David and Goliath' effort between a local community group, with scant resources, up against the full financial and legal resources of the Council and gun groups” Ms Irwin said. “It was clear to us from day one that there was no proper legal basis for the Council to have denied public access to this type of information, and we have been backed up by a higher authority.
“It is a disgrace that the Council has wasted ratepayers’ money to keep those very ratepayers from accessing information they are entitled to see,” Ms Irwin said.
The NCAT decision is available at -
STATEMENT BY S.A.F.E.
RELEVANT FACTS RE CURRENT N.C.A.T. PROCEEDINGS
On 22 March 2016, the Eurobodalla Shire Council approved an application by the South Coast Hunters Club to hire the Narooma Sporting and Leisure Centre for the purpose of conducting its annual Huntfest event on each June long weekend for the years of 2018 to 2022 (inclusive). (The SCHC already had approval to hire the venue up to and including 2017.)
On 27 April 2016, Stop Arms Fairs in Eurobodalla Inc. (SAFE) applied, under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (the GIPA Act) for a copy of the (so called) tender that had been lodged by SCHC in support of its application for a licence to conduct Huntfest for the period 2018-2022.
On 19 May 2016, the ESC formally rejected SAFE's application. Included in the Council's reasons for that decision, was that it had received a strong objection from the SCHC to the release of any information to the public.
On 14 July 2016, SAFE lodged a formal request for a review of the ESC's decision by the NSW Information Commissioner.
On 7 September 2016, the Information Commissioner handed down a 13 page review report, most of which involved the identification of unsatisfactory aspects of the ESC's decision (of 19 May 2016) to reject SAFE's application. The Information Commissioner's report recommended that the ESC make a new decision on SAFE's application taking into account the matters contained in the report.
On 21 September 2016, the ESC formally advised SAFE and the Information Commissioner that it had carried out a review of its earlier decision in the light of the Commissioner's report but had decided to maintain its position on not releasing any of the requested documents to the public.
On 8 November 2016, SAFE lodged a request with the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) for a review of the ESC's decision of 21 September to continue to deny access. (Unlike the situation with decisions of the Information Commissioner, NCAT's decisions are binding.)
On 3 February 2017, a confidential NCAT mediation process was undertaken in Sydney involving SAFE, the ESC and a member of the Tribunal.
Arising out of that NCAT mediation session, the ESC reconsidered its previous decision to deny access and, on 1 March 2017, issued a new decision which was to now provide the requested documents, with some parts redacted. In the ESC's notice to SAFE regarding its revised decision, the Council advised that there had been a further consultation with the SCHC and that the club's position was still that it “emphatically” objected to the release of the documents “even in the redacted form”.
Because of the SCHC's refusal to agree to the release of the redacted documents, the ESC was legally prevented from providing the documents to SAFE at that stage pending a decision by the SCHC on whether to appeal to NCAT against the Council's decision. The SCHC lodged such an appeal with the Tribunal on 1 May 2017 (the last day on which it was legally able to do so). The redacted documents were therefore not able to be released to the public before the finalisation of that SCHC appeal process.
On 27 September 2017 the SCHC's appeal against the ESC's proposal to release a redacted copy of the documents was heard by NCAT Senior Member Robertson who reserved his decision in this matter. SAFE exercised its right (under s.104(3) of the GIPA Act) to intervene in that hearing.
On 15 February 2018 Senior Member Robertson handed down his decision on SCHC appeal against the release of any parts of its HuntFest licence application. The decision was that there was no valid basis to deny public access to the documentation that the Council had proposed to publicly release.
SAFE now awaits receipt of the relevant documents from the ESC. Following an assessment by the SAFE committee of the reasonableness, within the terms of the GIPA Act, of the various redactions that have been made by the Council, a decision will be taken on whether there will be a need to continue to pursue with this matter further within NCAT. (See the note below.)
11 February 2017
(Note – In the view of SAFE, there are obvious flaws in at least some of the arguments contained in the ESC's 1/3/17 decision to redact some parts of the documents that it decided to release publicly. However, an assessment of the extent to which those flawed arguments might result in unacceptable redactions, will not be able to be properly made by SAFE until the redacted documents are released and examined. At that point, SAFE will still have the option of having its original NCAT review application taken to a full hearing. In this regard, Senior Member Robertson specifically indicates (in paragraph 71) that his decision is not an endorsement of the redactions made by the Council to the document that is now required to be released.)