October 2014

As we lead up to another AGM there is mixed news, but some hope, perhaps more so that last year.  Our strategy since minister Andrew Barr unexpectedly stopped any further consideration of the airfield is to point out the misinformation that led to that decision.

We had hopes that the Ombudsman would review the evidence and conduct an investigation into how so much misinformation could have been presented to the ACT Government.  Instead, the Ombudsman made a narrow critique of the brief we were able to provide and found that the officers who had provided the information had behaved completely reasonably, as they knew nothing about aviation, made no effort to find out, so could hardly be expected to provide accurate information.  Further, senior officers had every right to ignore evidence assembled by the action officer, as their position in the ACT Government hierarchy allowed them to do so.  The Ombudsman made no attempt to verify or otherwise extend the investigation past an attempt to belittle the information we submitted.  At no point did the Ombudsman suggest that the information provided to the ACT Government was actually correct.  The report by the Ombudsman is posted here.  Read it if you think there is some hyperbole in this summary.

To give some flavour of the Ombudsman’s report, here is a section from the report related to the ownership of the airfield:

 “The ownership model presented relies on the government granting the land required.”

Mr Price says that this statement is “completely contrary to the proposal” and characterises it as a “dishonest statement” used to garner support from other areas of the public service.

The proposal included the suggestion that “the Government acquires the necessary land…and puts in place a management structure overseen by a joint government-industry board.”  The issues appear to be whether there is a material difference between ‘granting’ and ‘acquiring’ the relevant land, and whether there is any evidence that suggests the use of one term in preference to the other was dishonest.

While there is a clear legal difference between a government ‘granting’ and ‘acquiring’ land, it is not clear that the use of the word ‘granting’ gives rise to a material difference in the context of the briefing.  On either characterisation, the government would be required to have dealings in land to support the proposal.  Mr Price has not supplied any compelling evidence to suggest that is was used for any reason other than to provide advice to government.


In May we submitted evidence in support of a Public Interest Disclosure.  The PID Act is designed to cover professional misbehavior and is quite broad.

Our brief was handed to an investigator in the office of the Commissioner for Public Administration, and here we have had some luck.

For the first time in this saga we have come across someone in the ACT Government who is actually a pilot.  The investigator read the brief and understood the aviation significance of the misinformation supplied to the ACT Government.  He convinced his superiors that the case warranted investigation.

We met with the investigator, a man with a career in investigation.  He explained to us that he would conduct an investigation and follow the evidence he uncovered to its logical conclusion.  He made it absolutely clear that he was no advocate for the airfield, just an investigator assembling evidence.  He also made it clear that he would conduct the investigation as he sees fit.

Prior to his involvement there have been a number of “investigations”. None of them was more than a narrow and ignorant critique of the evidence we have been able to assemble through the use of documents obtained through FOI.  We have made the logical point that this is very limiting, but to no avail.  All previous “investigations” were simply exercises conducted to shut down any implied criticism of government decisions, no matter how they were arrived at.  In our discussion with the current investigator, he made it clear that he had no intention of limiting his investigation in this manner.

The investigator also told us that his report could include recommendations as to some form of redress to correct the information currently on the ACT Government books, should his investigation suggest such a course of action.

Further, the ACT Government Auditor General has had some form of watching brief over this issue for some considerable time, and has been briefed on this new investigation.  We are unsure of the significance of her involvement, but view it as more than likely positive.

So, things could be worse.  At this stage, the best we can hope for is that a skilled investigator with aviation experience and an independent mindset, with the imprimatur of the head of the ACT Government public service and independent oversight would be turned loose on the whole affair, and that is that we have.

Meanwhile:  Late last year we negotiated with the Commissioner for Public Administration, Mr Andrew Kefford, an arrangement to separate the question of the airfield from that of the behaviour of officers of the Economic Development Directorate, (EDD), Mr Cox et al.  Mr Kefford negotiated an arrangement whereby we could lodge a late budget submission, and we have no reason to suppose that he did not do this in good faith.

So we lodged the submission, another substantial piece of work and heard no more.  Eventually I emailed the contact officer, Mr Paul Hutchison, in the ACT Treasury asking for information, and heard nothing from him.  So I emailed his boss the Under Treasurer, Mr David Nicol, and received a quick response from Mr Hutchison which included the following:

Your submission, while received after the period of consultation was formally closed, was nevertheless forwarded to the appropriate policy Directorate (the former Economic Development Directorate) where it was reviewed and forwarded to the Government for consideration as part of the 2014-15 Budget process.

As is often the case, the Government received a large number of capital proposals and it was required to prioritise those projects within the limitations against which it had planned its budget. The proposal contained in your submission was not, however, taken up by the Government in the 2014-15 Budget.

Except that the major part of the submission was funding for a review and the land acquisition was secondary.  We knew that there was no chance that the ACT Government would just summarily reverse the stance it has taken for the last 7 years, so we asked just for an objective reappraisal.

When our meeting was scheduled with the investigator, I thought it might be useful for him to know about this process so emailed Mr Hutchison with an urgent request for the information provided by EDD.  He replied:

Unfortunately, I am unable to assist you in obtaining further documentation.  Any analysis of Budget consultation submissions, including the Williamsdale Airport proposal, would have been provided to Government as part of its deliberations prior to finalisation of the 2014-15 Budget process.  Accordingly, any material provided to Government would have been subject to cabinet confidentiality arrangements. 

Now, this struck me as being extremely unlikely.  Consider the process.  Treasury contacts EDD and asks for advice.  According to Mr Hutchison, EDD then responded by providing a cabinet submission, bypassing Treasury.  That is, it all came as a surprise to cabinet members when they sat down and various submissions from all over the place were tabled.  It is only cabinet documents and those with privacy issues that are not available.  So I asked Mr Hutchison for confirmation of this scenario.  I waited a few days and received no reply. 

So I contacted his boss Mr Nicol again, and I regret that I was somewhat undisciplined and flippant.

 Mr Nicol replied:

It is not possible for us to provide individual feedback on every budget submission we receive – for the 2014-15 Budget process, we received over 75 public submissions many of which contained complex and significant material.  It is beyond my resources to undertake this task and we do not provide such feedback routinely.  While we do endeavour to follow-up where questions are asked of us (such as in your case), I would point out that the officer with whom you were dealing is responsible for coordinating budget processes and he has no particular expertise in the material that you submitted.  While I regret that we could not meet your expectations of response times, I don’t think it was necessary on your part to ‘assume’ that the officer must have been on leave.

It is worth noting in passing that the Ombudsman excuses the behaviour of EDD officers on the grounds that they had no particular expertise, but apparently that did not stop them offering advice that by now they knew to be categorically incorrect.

I repeatedly asked Mr Nicol for confirmation about the status of the advice provided by EDD, but he refused to let me know the status, which suggested to me that my original assumption was correct.  I presumed that rather than just give me the information, after all, it related to my submission, he would dig in as is the culture within the ACT Government.  So I filed another FOI.

I received this response form Mr Nicol:

I understand that you have put in a Freedom of Information Request relating to this material.  As such, the information that we can provide you will be settled through that process.

In other words, you dared to question us so you can stick it right up your arse.

The FOI showed that no assessment of our budget submission had been made, by Treasury or anyone else.  The FOI documents consisted only of a couple of internal emails referring the submission, but no assessment.  Just to make this more clear, the ACT Government encourages community participation in the budget process, and at least in our case then simply ignores the submissions.

Note that the response from Treasury was simply a lie.  There was no referral of the submission as stated in one of their responses, or the FOI process, which took over five weeks, missed the most important and relevant documents.

I have said before that in addition to lobbying for an airfield I feel deeply offended as a citizen at the sheer incompetence, arrogance and dishonesty of the people who have stood in the way of this project, and for that reason alone I am not prepared to walk away.