The Mercury: Australia: Friday, March 31, 2017.
THE State Government’s determination to keep secret a key document relating to the energy crisis has resulted in the Treasurer risking a potential contempt of parliament.
Treasurer Peter Gutwein has defied a summons issued by the Public Accounts Committee to get the Government to hand over a full copy of a letter relating to the sale of the Tamar Valley power station.
The committee views the letter as a missing piece in the puzzle of the energy crisis and has failed in a number of attempts to get the State Government to hand over the full document.
But the State Government has refused to comply, arguing the redacted section of the 2015 letter from Mr Gutwein to Energy Minister Matthew Groom is covered by Cabinet in confidence.
During a tense hearing lasting 20 minutes, Mr Gutwein clashed with chairman Ivan Dean MLC and accused the committee of being a “kangaroo court”.
Mr Gutwein came with a prepared statement but was shut down a number of times by Mr Dean who said he simply wanted a yes or no answer to the summons.
“I don’t intend to open this up to discussion on anything other than the reason that document is not being produced,” Mr Dean said.
In his rationale for defying the summons, Mr Gutwein raised an example from five years ago in which former premier Lara Giddings cited Cabinet in confidence in a refusal to hand over a document to a parliamentary committee.
He also used the fact that an independent Right to Information officer had already decided to redact the section of the letter after deeming it Cabinet in confidence.
When Mr Gutwein began to attack the committee for being politically tainted and beset by leaks, he was shut down by Mr Dean.
“I will not provide you with any opportunity to provide any criticism of this committee at all,” Mr Dean said.
Mr Gutwein said it was extraordinary that Mr Dean was preventing him from reading his statement.
“This reeks of a kangaroo court,” he said.
Outside Parliament, Mr Gutwein took his chance to further lay into the committee, which is made up of three independent MLCs, two Liberal MPs and one Labor MP.
“To gag a minister of the Crown from providing a statement to a parliamentary committee is unheard of,” Mr Gutwein said.
“… If that redacted part of the letter said I was the world’s best Treasurer, I would not be releasing that information. It is Cabinet information clearly covered by the Right to Information Act and, importantly, hundreds of years of precedent.”
However, the state’s foremost Right to Information expert Rick Snell said a Cabinet in confidence determination of an RTI officer was not a good enough reason to keep a document secret.
“What they seem to be arguing here is there is some quasi-legal reason for non-release, rather than it being purely political,” he said.
“This is a fairly desperate call to make the claim because a low-level RTI officer in a department thinks [the document] possibly meets that criteria.”
University of Tasmania corporate governance expert Tom Baxter said the Government’s actions favoured Cabinet secrecy over government accountability and respect for Parliament.
“The Treasurer’s approach risks contempt of parliament, and escalates the dispute. So it’s high stakes,” he said. “First, even if the letter is a Cabinet record, the Premier can choose to release it.
“Second, the Public Accounts Committee has its own Act, prohibiting disclosure of secret or confidential evidence. So the Treasurer could have given the committee the letter in private, but argued against its public disclosure if Cabinet in confidence.”
Labor also continues to dispute that a letter from one minister to another can be considered Cabinet in confidence.
Deputy Opposition Leader Michelle O’Byrne said the Treasurer’s behaviour in the committee showed the Liberals were willing to go to remarkable lengths to hide this document from the public.
“The Liberals have been desperate to cover up their role in the energy crisis but today it’s reached a whole new level,” she said.
Greens leader Cassy O’Connor said the Liberals’ determination to hide the information was “clearly the Liberals attempting to cover their backsides”.
The committee intends to table its report on Mr Gutwein’s refusal to release the document, along with a special report addressing accusations of leaks, when State Parliament resumes next Tuesday.
It will then be up to each House to determine its course of action over potential contempt of parliament.