21 September, 2012

Tribunal orders release of log deal details

Saffron Howden
Sydney Morning Herald, September 21, 2012

THE NSW government will be forced for the first time to reveal how much logging companies pay to fell native trees on publicly-owned land after a court ruled it was in the public interest that it do so.

The Administrative Decisions Tribunal found yesterday that Forests NSW must hand over information contained in its wood supply agreements, denied to the environment group the Nature Conservation Council of NSW last year after a freedom of information request.

Copies of the agreements were given to the council, but the Department of Trade and Investment blacked out sections that revealed timber price, types and amounts of trees and compensation payments made by the state government when logging companies could not extract all the timber they were promised.
Two Boral subsidiaries joined the government in fighting to keep the information secret, arguing breach of commercial-in-confidence contracts.

But, in a test of the Government Information (Public Access) Act, which has replaced freedom of information laws, the tribunal ruled the information be released.

''I agree with the applicant that there is a clear public interest in an agency that is dealing with public assets being accountable for the manner in which it contracts to sell those assets,'' the tribunal said. ''This interest is strengthened by the fact that the agreements were entered under a system that did not involve an open tender,'' judicial member Stephen Montgomery said.

''I also consider that there is a strong public interest consideration favouring disclosure of the redacted information in order to further public policy development around the management of the publicly owned hardwood forest estate in NSW.''

The council's chief executive, Pepe Clarke, said the judgment set a precedent for public disclosure of forestry operations as the government reviewed timber allocations in the north-east forests.

''We know that we have forests being logged unsustainably,'' he said. ''[This decision] tells us the price that's being paid for trees and logs of different quality.''

The NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann said it was only right the contracts be open to scrutiny.

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