Chief Minister’s office and department suppressing release of public information for 134 days

by | Apr 12, 2022 | News, NT Politics | 0 comments

The Department of Chief Minister and Cabinet has refused to explain incomplete travel records provided to the NT Independent last year under FOI laws that showed Michael Gunner’s then-deputy chief of staff and brother-in-law approved the use of taxpayer funds for campaign purposes in apparent contravention of the law.

The NT Independent requested an internal review of the incomplete documents provided from both the department and the Chief Minister’s office, citing improper and incomplete decision making that saw some names of those who travelled inexplicably redacted, a failure to provide all communications amongst staff and ministers about travel and a failure to provide documents that would show who ordered the taxpayer-funded travel.

Under the Information Act, the department has 30 days to complete the internal review.

It’s now been 134 days since the formal request for review was filed.

The Chief Minister’s department and his office have repeatedly requested more time to review the complaint, with the latest letters last week again claiming that complying with its legal responsibility to review “would unreasonably interfere with the operations” of the department and the office.

The constant and unjustified delays mean the NT Independent cannot refer the matter to the Information Commissioner to obtain the relevant documents because that can only be done after the review is finalised.

Mr Gunner has repeatedly refused to comment on the original documents obtained by the NT Independent through Freedom of Information laws late last year that show his brother-in-law and then-deputy chief of staff Ryan Neve approved more than $40,000 of taxpayer money for Mr Gunner to campaign around the Northern Territory during the 2020 general election, including for media photo ops and to remote communities on the same day mobile polling was being carried out by the NT Electoral Commission.

The approvals violate caretaker rules which stipulate all ministerial travel during an election must be approved by the department to avoid the misuse of public funds.

While the documents show Mr Neve approved the funding in contravention of the caretaker provisions, the NT Independent did not receive all of the information it requested through the FOI documents, including who had ordered the trips.

Mr Neve remained in his taxpayer-funded role as deputy chief of staff for Mr Gunner throughout the 2020 campaign, while also acting as a leading Territory Labor campaign coordinator. He was recently transferred out of the Department of Chief Minister and Cabinet and given a new executive role with the Department of Environment at their Palmerston office.

Head public servant Jodie Ryan has also refused to comment on why she did not approve the travel in accordance with caretaker rules.

Mr Gunner was elected in 2016 on a pledge to “restore integrity to government”, claiming that he would ensure “the resources of government are always employed in the public interest” after years of questionable ministerial travel costs with the previous government.

The Opposition and independent MLA Robyn Lambley have called on Mr Gunner to explain the election travel expenses with Ms Lambley calling it a “disgusting, appalling abuse of power, misuse of public funds and a breach of trust by the Gunner Government”.

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