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  • Costello halts FOI hearings
  • By Sid Marris and Michael McKinnon
  • The Australian
  • 05/12/2003 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 74 articles in 2003 )
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal was yesterday forced to abandon hearing appeals by The Australian to gain access to potentially damning Treasury documents after Peter Costello used extraordinary powers to suppress them.

The Treasurer has moved to prevent the newspaper receiving 40 documents detailing the rising tax burden on ordinary workers.

Claiming the release of the estimates might be "misleading or confusing", Mr Costello has invoked special powers to block material sought under Freedom of Information laws.

News Limited, publisher of The Australian, has condemned the decision as a contempt of the public, while Labor has asked what the Treasurer is seeking to hide.

Mr Costello told parliament yesterday the dispute should go to "independent adjudication" by the AAT.

But Mr Costello has stopped three scheduled AAT hearings on the issue.

Instead, the AAT has been forced into the unusual step of reconvening to review the Treasurer's decision to issue the block, known as "a conclusive certificate", next year.

Even if the AAT rules that the Treasurer had no reasonable grounds to issue conclusive certificates, Mr Costello could ignore the order, raising the possibility of an appeal to the Federal Court to fight the secrecy.

In his defence of the suppression order, Mr Costello said release of the documents would interfere with the ability of public servants to speak freely with ministers and their advisers.

"If they were to be released for public scrutiny, officers may in the future feel reluctant to make a written record, to the detriment of processes and the public record."

He also said the material might be reported unfairly.

Mr Costello told parliament yesterday the orders had been used regularly by the Hawke and Keating governments.

News Limited chief executive John Hartigan told the Press Council on Thursday night that Mr Costello's decision was "an act of profound contempt".

He said the decision meant documents which may or may not reflect on the Treasurer's competence would be hidden from the public forever.

"Mr Costello deserves to be questioned at every press conference between now and the next election on why he has hidden this material from the public gaze, and whether it affects the Government's continued claim to superior economic management," he said.

Mr Costello's office refused to comment directly on Mr Hartigan's remarks.

Opposition Treasury spokesman Bob McMullan said that as every year went past, Australians were demanding more and more information, with the Howard Government providing less and less.

"This information is paid for by the taxpayers; it is information that affects the lives of every Australian," he said.

"The grounds for issuing this conclusive certificate are extraordinary.

"This is an obsession about protecting the Treasurer's political interests and reputation, rather than telling the truth about his performance."

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