news The NBN company has refused to reduce hefty Freedom of Information charges for the release of minutes of its board meetings, claiming there is “no general public interest” in the documents being released.
In late January, Delimiter issued several Freedom of Information requests to the NBN company seeking the release of minutes pertaining to meetings of the company’s board of directors. Delimiter is seeking both a copy of minutes from the most recent NBN board meeting, as well as a copy of the most recent set of minutes to be approved (these may be different things).
Delimiter took this step due to the fact that the NBN company has recently made a number of key decisions with respect to its infrastructure.
For example, it has been recently revealed that the NBN board has blocked a shift of the NBN’s infrastructure rollout to a Fibre to the Distribution Point model, despite the fact that cost improvements have brought the cost of FTTdp close to the technically inferior Fibre to the Node option.
The NBN board has also recently considered other key issues relating to the NBN rollout, such as using so-called ‘Skinny Fibre’ to cut costs in its rollout.
In our request, Delimiter pointed to the NBN company that it is currently involved in delivering Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project. This project is an initiative which will touch the premises of every Australian, as well as reshaping the national telecommunications industry.
With this in mind, Delimiter argued in its request there is a significant public interest argument that the NBN company should be as transparent as possible with its governance arrangements. This is to ensure that the public and industry can have certainty that the project is being governed in a competent manner.
The release of NBN board minutes (as both of these requests seek) would directly aid in ensuring that the public can have confidence in the governance of the NBN company and of the project as a whole.
As a part of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, Delimiter would commit to publishing and analysing these board minutes as soon as they are released, in order to assist with this process.
Delimiter also indicated that we were willing to have the names of NBN directors, staff and third parties at any particular board meeting to be redacted from the minutes, to help ensure their release.
However, in response, the NBN company has chosen to levy substantial fees – to a total of $767.50 – to have the documents examined to see if they can be released.
In several letters to Delimiter, the NBN company wrote that there had been no media coverage of decisions taken by its board that would cause it to waive the fees in the name of the public interest.
“NBN staff reviewed various media sources and found no media coverage relating to the NBN Board’s management or its consideration of commercial matters over the last quarter … the lack of extensive media coverage during the last quarter by major news publications suggests that the provision of access to the most recent minutes would not be in the general public interest or be in the interest of a substantial section of the public,” the NBN company’s general counsel in charge of FOI, David Mesman, wrote.
“I also note that NBN is not aware of any issues discussed in Parliament, including Senate hearings, regarding NBN Board activities over the last quarter – or in the recent past.”
In response, Delimiter wrote back to the NBN company and requested an internal review.
Delimiter pointed out to the NBN company that its statements regarding media coverage and Senate hearings were inaccurate, given that NBN chief executive Bill Morrow earlier this year told the NBN Senate Select Committee that a proposal had been taken to the NBN board regarding a switch to a Fibre to the Distribution Point model for the NBN rollout.
Delimiter sent the NBN company a number of media articles discussing this topic. However, the NBN company again refused to waive the charges.
“I am of the opinion that there is no ‘general public interest’ in the specific documents requested,” NBN acting general counsel Sarah Hosey wrote.
The news is only the first time that the NBN company has sought to obstruct the release of its board minutes.
For example, in February 2014 the NBN company denied a similar FOI request put to the company by Fairfax Media. At the time, the NBN company said it could not release its minutes because the reputation of its directors could be damaged if it revealed which ones of them attended a certain meeting.
It is disappointing – but not surprising – to see that the NBN company continues to attempt to levy substantial charges on FOI attempts for basic information such as the minutes of its board of directors. The NBN company has rapidly earned itself a lasting reputation as one of the toughest nuts to crack in Australia when it comes to basic Freedom of Information requests. The company’s default position is that nothing gets out.
I simply cannot see how it would cost the company $400 per document to ascertain which parts of its most recent board minutes can safely be released.
Unfortunately Delimiter cannot afford to weather this cost at present, so we have been forced to abandon this FOI request for the NBN company’s latest set of board minutes.
I am sure some readers will point out that it would be possible to crowdsource these fees, and that’s true. It’s something I’ve done before at Delimiter when attempting to fund NBN-related FOI requests.
I haven’t done so in this case, because I am conscious that readers have contributed a great deal to Delimiter’s operations recently – via memberships and support for my forthcoming book, The Frustrated State. I want to ensure I deliver on those commitments before hitting you guys up for more funds ;)