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Arms Trade, Australian Politics

Coalition accused of dragging out legal battle to hide documents on $1.3bn arms deal

Coalition accused of dragging out legal battle to hide documents on $1.3bn arms deal

5/6/2020 10:22:00 AM

Coalition accused of dragging out legal battle to hide documents on $1.3bn arms deal

Senator Rex Patrick lashes out at ‘ freedom of information abuse at its worst’ after government spent almost two years trying to stop release of report criticising Thales fleet purchase

The government has now spent almost two years attempting to stop the public release of an unredacted auditor general’s report that criticised the $1.3bn purchase of a combat vehicle fleet from French arms manufacturer Thales.The attorney general, Christian Porter, prompted a minor scandal in 2018 when he used extraordinary powers to order parts of the audit be redacted. It was later revealed that Thales had been urging Porter to censor the report, furious at a finding that suggested Australia could have paid half the amount for a different vehicle through a United States military program.

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In September 2018, crossbench senator Rex Patrick lodged a freedom of information request for the unredacted report, which was resisted by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.Patrick took the case to the information watchdog and then the administrative appeals tribunal in May 2019, where the matter has now spent 12 months without any resolution.

The delays have been compounded by the government’s decision in October to raise seven new arguments for why the document couldn’t be released, two of which were so complex that they needed to be considered by a judge.The matter was listed before a judge on 1 May 2020, and Patrick engaged high-profile silk Geoffrey Watson SC, acting pro bono. headtopics.com

But a day before the scheduled case management hearing, the government abandoned the more complex arguments, meaning the judge was no longer needed.Patrick said the government’s actions had dragged the case out unnecessarily and wasted taxpayer funds.

“This whole saga has been an abuse of process, with every trick in the book being used to dissuade me from continuing to pressing my rights and to delay the information being made public,” Patrick told Guardian Australia. “Expensive taxpayer-funded lawyers have been used to take on me, a bush lawyer at best. This is freedom of information abuse at its worst.”

The department, though, said it had been able to resolve some of the more complex legal arguments prior to hearing, and withdrew them to limit the scope of issues in dispute.“The proceedings raise complex legal and procedural issues, which the parties agreed justified the attention of a judicial member,” the department said in a statement. “Some of those complex legal arguments were able to be resolved at an early stage, and PM&C’s withdrawal of those points prior to any hearing was consistent with its obligations as a model litigant to limit the scope of issues in dispute where possible.”

The department would not say how much it had spent on the case.Thales had initially wanted six paragraphs in particular struck from the auditor general’s report, which found that Australia could have got another vehicle for half the price through the US joint light tactical vehicle (JLTV) program. headtopics.com

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Australia had considered joining the JLTV program but pulled out and decided on a locally built option, the Thales Hawkei, after what the auditor general described as “extensive lobbying” from Thales and the defence industry.Thales said the cost comparison was flawed and would hurt the market.

Read more: The Guardian »

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Utter contempt for scrutiny.

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