Marriage equality plebiscite cost estimates

Graeme Bowman made this Freedom of Information request to Australian Electoral Commission

The request was refused by Australian Electoral Commission.

From: Graeme Bowman

Delivered

from: Graeme Bowman

Dear Australian Electoral Commission, 28th August 2016

I hereby request, under the Freedom of Information Act (1982) copies of the following documents, available as of the date of this letter:

(a) All documents pertaining to estimates the commission has made for the cost of running the proposed plebiscite on same sex marriage

I also make the application that all costs for the processing of this request be waived on the grounds that the release of this information is in the public interest and will help inform the public debate surrounding the plebiscite.

Yours faithfully,

Graeme Bowman

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Australian Electoral Commission

Thank you for contacting us.

This is an automatic response from the Australian Electoral Commission to confirm we have received your email.

For more information on enrolling to vote, federal elections or the AEC, visit www.aec.gov.au.

Please do not respond to this email.

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Charlie Somerville left an annotation ()

Hey Graeme,

It looks like this is an exact duplicate of the request I sent earlier in https://www.righttoknow.org.au/request/m...

If you're also keen on finding this information yourself, you can follow my request and you'll be kept up to date as that's responded to.

Sending a duplicate request just creates more work for the person at the AEC who has to respond to these, and if they're annoyed then it might mean they're less inclined to use their discretion to help us in a way that isn't required by the FOIA.

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Graeme Bowman left an annotation ()

Point taken, I was just trying to strengthen your request. I didn't look at it in that light. Sorry about that. We do need a lot more openness with this Government and unfortunately they do not think we have the right to enquire.
thanks
Graeme

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From: Antonia Exposito
Australian Electoral Commission


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UNCLASSIFIED

 

Dear Mr Bowman

I refer to your email of 28 August 2016 11:37pm, in which you request (the
‘FOI Request’) for access under the [1]Freedom of Information Act 1982
(the ‘FOI Act’) to documents relating to cost estimates for the
plebiscite.

I enclose a scanned letter to you dated 14 September 2016 from Paul
Pirani, Chief Legal Officer of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC),
notifying you of his decision about your FOI Request.

Regards

 

Antonia Exposito | Administrative Assistant

Legal Services Section | Legal & Procurement Branch

Australian Electoral Commission

T: (02) 6271 4405 | F: (02) 6293 7657

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From: Graeme Bowman

Delivered

Dear Australian Electoral Commission,

Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews.

I am writing to request an internal review of Australian Electoral Commission's handling of my FOI request 'Marriage equality plebiscite cost estimates'.

The request was refused and I and many others are very disappointed over response. This a non binding Plebiscite. We as Australian Citizens and/or taxpayers have the right to be informed as to how our tax dollars are spent. Many of us believe that the cost $154,000,000 is completely and underestimated. For that reason along we expect our rights to be protected. This is our only avenue to verify these details

A full history of my FOI request and all correspondence is available on the Internet at this address: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/request/m...

Yours faithfully,

Graeme Bowman

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From: Owen Jones
Australian Electoral Commission


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UNCLASSIFIED

Dear Mr Bowman

I refer to your email of 18 September 2016 4:39 PM requesting internal
review of the decision made in respect of your FOI Request LS574 for
access to plebiscite costings.

The Australian Electoral Commission (‘AEC’) received your request for
internal review on 18 September 2016. The internal review will be
considered by a decision maker other than Paul Prirani, Chief Legal
Officer of the AEC. You may expect a decision to be made about the
internal review on or before 18 October 2016. Please use the new reference
number (LS5768) that applies to your request for internal review in any
correspondence about this matter.

I note that your FOI Request LS574 sought access to:

All documents pertaining to estimates the commission has made for the cost
of running the proposed plebiscite on same sex marriage.

The decision made by Mr Pirani was to refuse you access to four documents.
Three of those documents were outside the scope of documents that may be
the subject of a request under Part III of the Freedom of Information Act
1982 which provides for FOI Requests. This was because the three documents
were already in the public domain. Access to the other document (Document
No. 2 was refused because it is conditionally exempt under section 47C of
the FOI Act as providing access would be contrary to the public interest.

Please clarify whether your request for internal review is confined to the
decision in relation to Document No. 2 or whether it applies to all four
documents.

I note that the grounds that you advanced in support of access to the
documents are:

The request was refused and I and many others are very disappointed over
response. This a non binding Plebiscite. We as Australian Citizens and/or
taxpayers have the right to be informed as to how our tax dollars are
spent. Many of us believe that the cost $154,000,000  is completely and
underestimated. For that reason along we expect our rights to be
protected. This is our only avenue to verify these details  

Do you wish to expand on the grounds that you advance in support of being
given access to the documents?

I take it from your email of 18 September 2016 4:39 PM that you are
abandoning the remainder of your FOI Request No. LS5744. If this is not
the case, I remind you that you must provide a formal response to the
practical refusal consultation in Mr Pirani’s letter to you dated 14
September 2016 by 28 September 2016. Please contact me (my contact details
are below) if you wish to discuss your FOI Request LS5744.

Regards

Owen Jones

Owen Jones | Senior Lawyer

Legal Services Section | Legal and Procurement Branch

Australian Electoral Commission

T: (02) 6271 4528 | F: (02) 6293 7657

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Commission

This email may contain legal advice that is subject to legal professional
privilege. Care should be taken to avoid unintended waiver of that
privilege. The Australian Electoral Commission’s Chief Legal Officer
should be consulted prior to any decision to disclose the existence or
content of any advice contained in this email to a third party.

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William Summers left an annotation ()

Graeme, good on you for appealing. You really need to come up with specific reasons for why you think their initial response is wrong though.

I have been through it and added annotations on the original request for this info: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/request/m...

Don't just use my text, but you will need to look at each of the arguments they use saying it is against the public interest to release it, and counter why you do not think their case is correct. Also you should just limit this to Doc 2, which is clearly the contentious (and interesting) one. Not being specific gives them an easy out to refuse it again. I am happy to help with wording if you want.

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From: Graeme Bowman

Delivered

Dear Australian Electoral Commission,

Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews.

I am writing to request an internal review of Australian Electoral Commission's handling of my FOI request 'Marriage equality plebiscite cost estimates'.

Thank you for your email of 20 September. I can confirm I would like to pursue an internal review for this request.

Firstly, you are correct to state that my request for a review only now applies to Document 2, which is the contentious document not yet in the public domain.

I strongly believe that this document should be released. As you know, Section 47 of the Act is only valid if the information is CONTRARY to the public interest. Therefore the AEC is obliged to release this information if it cannot adequately show how that release would be against public interest, on balance.

Several reasons were given in the AEC’s final response as to why this would be the case. I do not accept any of them and wish to challenge them as outlined below:

1)At paragraph 37 the response states: “the manner in which the opinion was arrived at is not of itself a matter that would usefully inform public debate about the cost of the plebiscite… The cost of the plebiscite will only be ascertained once the plebiscite is conducted and the expenses associated with it have crystallised.” A similar argument is also used in paragraph 41 (“the public has no discernible interest in knowing how the forecast of probably costs was arrived at by the AEC”) so I will combine these two points together.

I would like to emphasise that the key information being debated is the estimated cost of the plebiscite, as forecast for the AEC. The manner in which they arrived at those figures are not a primary concern, however knowing how they were arrived at would provide confidence and explanation. The key information I am trying to obtain, however, is dollar estimates about the total cost. Given these figures were presumably put together by experts and used to inform the AEC’s thinking, I cannot see why the AEC’s response to my FOI request is now implying they are not particularly useful for informing public debate in the same way. Additionally, if the workings and calculations are considered exempt under 47C, then it does not automatically follow anyway that the result of those calculations (i.e. the estimates of cost) are exempt.

The point made by the AEC about the costs only being “crystallised” after the plebiscite is not relevant, and should be struck from the arguments against release. There is a clear and undeniable public debate about the potential costs of a plebiscite, which means that estimates in advance of any such event are crucial to that debate. Seeking information about estimated costs ahead of a spending commitment is a valid request under the FOI Act.

2)At paragraph 38 the AEC response states: “The breakdown of various opinions about particular likely expenses incurred in conducting a plebiscite would provide no useful basis for oversight of the public expenditure incurred…”

With reference to my previous point above, I find it hard to understand how expert opinion on costs provided to the AEC (at public expense) can provide “no useful basis” for debate about public expenditure. In the usual course of government business, projected costs are a core part of debate and decision making. It is vital for public debate that the public have a good estimate of the potential costs. It is also vital that this information is made public in order for our MPs to be able to make truly informed decisions.

3)Paragraph 42 and 43 also refer to the supposed lack of public interest is in knowing about estimated costs, seemingly making the point that until the enabling legislation for the plebiscite is passed, the possible costs should not be part of the public debate (the exact point being made here is unclear).

As above, I would argue that the estimated or projected costs of a plebiscite are the key pieces of information being debated here. Withholding information on the basis that legislation enabling it has not yet been passed does not seem relevant, and does not have any basis in FOI law. I would argue that a full and proper debate about whether to hold a plebiscite or not cannot be had without expert cost projections, as seem to have already been carried out by the AEC and contained in Document 2. Paragraphs 42 and 43 should therefore be removed from the argument against release, unless the AEC can provide further explanation about their meaning and purpose.

Finally, I would re-emphasise that under Section 47C this information can only be withheld if, on balance, it is against the public interest. Debate around whether or not the plebiscite should be held is undeniably very current and very high profile. Purely in monetary terms, there is a direct effect on the Australian public if the plebiscite goes ahead. MPs will need to vote on whether a plebiscite should happen or not, then participate in public debate if it does go ahead. The financial burden on taxpayers is a key part of this debate. For all these reasons, I believe there is a clear and strong public interest in the cost estimates contained within Document 2 being released.

In addition, the reasons already given by the AEC for withholding the information do not stand up to scrutiny, as I have argued above.

Overall then, there is, in my opinion, a clear public interest in releasing this information, which is why I am now asking the AEC to review its original decision and release the information requested in Document 2.

Best wishes

A full history of my FOI request and all correspondence is available on the Internet at this address: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/request/m...

Yours faithfully,

Graeme Bowman

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Australian Electoral Commission

Thank you for contacting us.

This is an automatic response from the Australian Electoral Commission to confirm we have received your email.

For more information on enrolling to vote, federal elections or the AEC, visit www.aec.gov.au.

Please do not respond to this email.

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From: Owen Jones
Australian Electoral Commission


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                UNCLASSIFIED

Dear Mr Bowman

I refer to your email of 25 September 2016 2:47 PM about your request for
internal review.

I will bring your contentions to the attention of the decision maker who
conducts the internal review.

Regards

Owen Jones

Owen Jones | Senior Lawyer

Legal Services Section | Legal and Procurement Branch

Australian Electoral Commission

T: (02) 6271 4528 | F: (02) 6293 7657

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[1]Australian Electoral Commission logo [2]Australian Electoral
Commission

This email may contain legal advice that is subject to legal professional
privilege. Care should be taken to avoid unintended waiver of that
privilege. The Australian Electoral Commission’s Chief Legal Officer
should be consulted prior to any decision to disclose the existence or
content of any advice contained in this email to a third party.

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From: Owen Jones
Australian Electoral Commission


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Attachment 20161018 LS5768 Letter to G Bowman notifying outcome of internal review.pdf
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UNCLASSIFIED

Dear Mr Bowman

I refer to your email of 18 September 2016 4:39 PM, to the AEC in which
you request (your ‘Internal Review Request’) an internal review of the
decision to refuse access to certain documents retrieved in respect of
your FOI Request No. LS5744 made by Mr Paul Pirani, Chief Legal Officer of
the AEC that was notified to you on 14 September 2016 that related to
access to information about the same sex marriage plebiscite.

I attach a scanned letter to you dated 18 October 2016 from Kathryn
Toohey, Deputy Electoral Commissioner notifying you of the decision that
she made in reviewing Mr Pirani’s decision.

Please let me know if you wish to accept Ms Toohey’s offer of access to an
edited copy of Document No. 2.

Regards

Owen Jones

Owen Jones | Senior Lawyer

Legal Services Section | Legal and Procurement Branch

Australian Electoral Commission

T: (02) 6271 4528 | F: (02) 6293 7657

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[1]Australian Electoral Commission logo [2]Australian Electoral
Commission

This email may contain legal advice that is subject to legal professional
privilege. Care should be taken to avoid unintended waiver of that
privilege. The Australian Electoral Commission’s Chief Legal Officer
should be consulted prior to any decision to disclose the existence or
content of any advice contained in this email to a third party.

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From: Graeme Bowman

Delivered

Dear Owen Jones,
I, as an Australian Citizen am extremely disappointed that I and all other Australians are refused access to how our Tax-Dollars are spent. It is our right to be able to see where these Tax-Dollars are going. The Australian Government seem to conveniently forget the fact that we Australians are their employer and about time they were reminded that they are NOT a Law unto themselves. The Marriage plebiscite cost estimates are all part of this and our right to know. I really do not understand how such information request can be denied to us, Australians.

Yours sincerely,

Graeme Bowman

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William Summers left an annotation ()

Graham, If you aren't going to do anything more to pursue this request (which is probably fruitless), you might as well take the information they offer you in this response as their compromise deal.

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Things to do with this request

Anyone:
Australian Electoral Commission only: