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NSW government in bid to keep lid on light rail secrets
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian inspects progress on the Sydney Light Rail project.
- ANDREW CLENNELL
- The Australian
- 12:00AM October 18, 2017
The NSW government is pulling out all stops to halt the release of documents that could prove Premier Gladys Berejiklian misled the public over her controversial CBD light rail project and reveal further cost blowouts in the $2.1 billion development.
Labor upper house leader Adam Searle has won a case in the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal for the release of documents in connection with the project, which stretches from Sydney’s CBD to Randwick and Kingsford in the city’s southeast, with the line due to be finished close to the March 2019 election.
But the government is appealing to a full panel of the NCAT.
The NCAT did not accept its argument that the documents could not be released under freedom-of-information laws because of “cabinet in confidence” provisions. In an important precedent, the NCAT found in favour of Mr Searle, saying: “There is a significant public interest in disclosure of information concerning problems the Sydney Light Rail Delivery Office is having with stakeholders and information which contains criticisms of particular stakeholders. This is information which is relevant to the progress of the project and the way it is being managed.
“The public interest against disclosure of this information is that it could be reasonably expected to prejudice the effective exercise by Transport for NSW (through the Sydney Light Rail Delivery Office) of its functions.
“Transport for NSW has not demonstrated in any concrete way how disclosure of the information would make the exercise of its functions less effective.
“I accept, in general terms, that disclosure of the information could damage its relationship with stakeholders, and that this could make the office less effective when managing the project.
“However, without evidence of a more specific nature as to how the office would be rendered less effective in the exercise of its functions, I am not prepared to give this consideration significant weight.”
Ms Berejiklian was found by the Auditor-General in November last year — two months before she became premier — to have misled the public when she was transport minister in 2014 over the cause of a $500 million blowout in the light rail project just before the last state election. However, she has steadfastly denied doing so knowingly.
In a press release dated October 2014, Ms Berejiklian said the project’s cost was increasing because of a “huge win” — a 50 per cent increase in capacity.
But Auditor-General Margaret Crawford’s report found that by October 2014, Transport for NSW knew “omissions and mispricing” caused the project to blow out from $1.6bn to $2.1bn. In December 2014, Ms Berejiklian publicly repeated that “wins” led to the increased price.
Ms Crawford’s report found that “94 per cent of the $549m increase was due to incorrect estimates in the business case”.
Last year Mr Searle sought through freedom-of-information laws and then, once refused, through the tribunal, the documents or reports by former transport department director-general John Murray in relation to the light rail project. These were “expert review reports commissioned by Infrastructure NSW”.
Mr Searle said yesterday: “The government has fought tooth and nail to keep these documents secret — to protect the Premier from having to take responsibility for her actions on the light rail project when she was transport minister. If she has nothing to hide, why won’t her government hand over the information?”
A spokeswoman for Transport for NSW said: “Transport for NSW is seeking to appeal this decision because we believe the relevant documents contain confidential commercial information about the CBD and southeast light rail. If released, this information could disadvantage us in our commercial dealings with the private sector and hinder our ability to achieve value for money.”