How many drugs have gone missing or have been stolen from the Hunter's hospitals? Are waiting times for cancer treatments improving or getting worse? Are plans to develop the Broadmeadow sports and entertainment precinct on track? Is the government serious about extending Newcastle light rail?
These are just some of the stories that we would have liked to inform you about as a result of freedom of information requests.
But state government bureaucrats have decided it's not in your interest to know these details.
The 2009 NSW Government Information (Public Access) Act (GIPA) was meant to herald a new era in transparency regarding the operation of NSW government departments and agencies.
The legislation's guiding principle was pro-disclosure unless there was an overwhelming reason why the information should be withheld.
Yet valid requests for information are being denied or obstructed through the use of techniques designed to thwart the public release of information.
A growing number of freedom of information experts, media organisations and civil liberties groups have expressed concern about the apparent breakdown of the legislation.
"It seems like the default position of government agencies is not to release information when it should be the other way around," Paul Murphy, chief executive of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, said
"There just seems to be a whole range of mechanisms that are being used to prevent the release of information and avoid scrutiny. A particular concern is the way documents are being classified (eg. cabinet in confidence, commercial in confidence) to prevent them from being released."
The Herald sought details of Venues NSW's masterplan for the 63-hectare Broadmeadow Sports and Entertainment precinct, widely considered to be Newcastle's next major urban renewal project.
It is understood the precinct masterplan is complete, however, it is not clear if Cabinet has assessed the proposal.
The NSW Office of Sport said it located 4350 emails and 740 documents related to the project, including 27 business cases, 450 stakeholder engagements, 98 board report updates, and 112 briefings.
A refined search reduced the total number of documents relevant to the request to 354 records. A further cull reduced this to 16.
However the government ultimately decided that none of these should be released because they were classified as 'Cabinet in confidence'.
In another example, the Herald sought an economic analysis prepared by consultants Corview for Transport for NSW as part of the Newcastle light rail extension business case.
The application also requested ministerial briefing notes about the project produced over the past 18 months.
Transport for NSW confirmed that it had identified the business case and briefing note but refused to release either as they were deemed "Cabinet in confidence".
To release the information, the department argued, "would reveal or tend to reveal a position that the minister has taken, is taking, is considering taking, or has been recommended to take, on matters concerning the extension proposal in Cabinet."
The department cited the same reason for refusing to release 15 briefing notes relating to the proposed design of the Hexham to Fassifern freight rail bypass.
The Herald requested City of Newcastle and the Department of Planning provide a copy of a publicly funded consultant's report outlining possible long-term solutions for Stockton's erosion crisis.
The council and department said it was not in the public interest to release the report because it would "create confusion among the community".
They also refused to reveal the name of the consultant who authored the report, claiming it contained "sensitive business and technical information".
The NSW Information Commissioner this week ruled that the department's decision regarding the report was not justified and recommended the agency make a new decision.
Hunter New England Health has rejected three applications in the past year seeking information that it has previously been released under freedom of information laws.
In its response to an application for information about missing and stolen drugs from the region's hospitals the agency said it did not keep such records and referred the Herald to NSW Health.
The Herald also sought details of oncology waiting times at Calvary Mater Newcastle by date and type and stage of cancer.
Hunter New England Health again said it did not keep a collective record of oncology waiting times.
"Searches of the oncology electronic patient management system were undertaken for a record of the oncology waiting times .... There is no collective record of oncology waiting times available in response to your request. A report containing the information requested is not held by HNE Health," Hunter New England Health Right to Information Officer Jennifer Hutchings wrote.
In a similar example, NSW Ambulance said a Herald request seeking details of the 50 longest ambulance response times in the Hunter over the past two years was 'invalid' because the application did not contain sufficient information to enable the government information to be searched for.
In response to being advised the same information had previously been released under GIPA legislation Manager, legal services Kathleen Crilly wrote: "That application was made four years ago and circumstances have changed.
"I cannot comment on the decisions made by the Right to Information Officer at that time."
The 2018-19 GIPA report shows overall release rates for GIPA applications increased slightly to 70 per cent, up from 68 per cent the previous year.
The number of valid applications declined by 1 per cent with 15,774 valid applications received.
The government sector received the majority (12,637 or 80 per cent) of applications.
However, the rate of deemed refusals had increased steadily from 3 per cent in 2015/16 to 8 per cent in 2018/19.
"In summary, the impact of a rise in deemed refusals on agencies is duplication of effort," NSW Information Commissioner Elizabeth Tydd said.
"The impact on citizens is to curtail the fundamental right to access information."
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The report said there was an overall commitment among agencies to the complying with the GIPA Act.
But lawyer, respected FOI expert and former diplomat Peter Timmins said a growing body of anecdotal evidence pointed to problems with the act.
"Apart from the Commissioner's report the GIPA act is so underdone in terms of any research or examination of what is going on," he said.
"We have not had parliamentary committee interest sufficient to have a close look at the legislation and how it is operating. I think there are some major weakness there."
Despite that Mr Timmins said the NSW GIPA Act was strong by national standards. He also welcomed the creation of the role of NSW Information Commissioner.
"The extent to which they are adequately resourced or appropriately tough on the job is always a bit of a question mark," he said.
"It seems to me this legislation would benefit from having some teeth. Where agencies are shown to have treated an application irresponsibly or inappropriately there should be some penalty involved. The only penalty that operates across the system is a bit of naming and shaming. That's not a very big stick."
NSW Council of Civil Liberties president Stephen Blanks said there were numerous examples around Australia of where freedom of information legislation had failed to improve transparency.
"These regimes are effectively failing, no matter how many times they get reformed, to create a culture of disclosure. Bureaucracies find a way to manipulate the system to keep what they want out of the public's view," he said.
"There's a structural problem in that the institutions that we depend on for serving the public interest are working against the public interest."
Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp, who has lodged numerous GIPA applications seeking information about state government projects around Newcastle, said 'state of secrecy' shrouded the expenditure of public money.
"If the government routinely blocks elected representatives from accessing information that is in the interest of their community and a critical part of our role of holding government accountable for their decisions and the expenditure of public funds, what hope does the community or the media have?," he said.
As an example, Mr Crakanthorp said he had submitted GIPAs to find out the true costs of a variety of aspects for the Newcastle light rail project but was told he had asked for too many documents and his request should be "more reasonable".
"This was a project that cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and created years of disruption in the CBD, yet the government had the hide to consider my request for transparency to be unreasonable," he said.
"I appealed that decision to the IPC and was told that I was in the right, however that is a non-binding ruling so the government was still not required to produce the documents. We should not have to go to such lengths to know the full cost of a project funded by the NSW Government.
"More recently, we have seen this government refuse to reveal how much it sold The Store site for. If the taxpayer received value for money, why not release the sale price? It shouldn't be this difficult to access this information."
"The government says 'trust us!' but it seems at every turn they are trying to hide something. What is it that they don't want us to know?"
1: Light rail extension
What the Herald asked for: Economic analysis information prepared by consultants Corview for Transport for NSW as part of the Newcastle light rail extension business case and minister briefing notes relating to an extension produced over the past 18 months.
The result: Transport for NSW identified the business case and a briefing note but refused to release either as they were deemed "Cabinet in confidence" and would reveal or tend to reveal a position that the minister has taken, is taking, is considering taking, or has been recommended to take, on matters concerning the extension proposal in Cabinet.
2: Stockton erosion report
What the Herald asked for: Requested City of Newcastle and the Department of Planning provide a copy of a publicly funded consultant's report outlining possible long-term solutions for Stockton's erosion crisis.
The result: City of Newcastle said disclosure of the 116-page report would "create confusion among the community". The agencies also refused to reveal the name of the consultant who authored the report, claiming it contained "sensitive business and technical information". The NSW Information Commissioner this week ruled that the department's decision regarding the report was not justified and recommended the agency make a new decision.
3: Stolen and missing drugs
What the Herald asked for: A list of stolen, missing or lost medications from Hunter New England hospitals or health facilities since March 1, 2018 by date, health facility name and location, and medication type.
The result: HNEH said it did not keep a central record of stolen, missing, or lost medications from the region's hospitals or health facilities. HNEH previously provided this information as part of freedom of information requests in July 2009 and August 2015.
4: Oncology waiting times
What the Herald asked for: Oncology waiting times at Calvary Mater Newcastle from March 1, 2018, to date by date and type and stage of Cancer.
The result: HNEH said it did not keep a collective record of oncology waiting times. HNEH previously provided this information as part of a freedom of information request in July 2009.
5: 50 longest ambulance response times
What the Herald asked for: Details of the 50 longest ambulance response times in the Hunter over the past two years.
The result: Application was deemed invalid because it did not contain sufficient information to enable the government information to be searched for. A request for the same information four years ago was approved without question.
6: Broadmeadow precinct and light rail extension
What the Herald asked for: Details of the master plan for the 63 hectare Broadmeadow sports and entertainment precinct.
The result: The NSW Office of Sport said it initially located 4350 emails and 740 documents related to the project. A refined search reduced the total number of relevant documents to 354. This was ultimately reduced to 16, however, each of these documents were classified as "Cabinet in confidence"
7: Freight bypass
What the Herald asked for: Alignment designs and minister briefing notes produced in the past three years relating to the Hexham to Fassifern freight rail bypass (Lower Hunter Freight Corridor).
The result: Transport for NSW said it had identified 15 briefing notes related to the Lower Hunter Freight Corridor, but ruled some out as they were drafts that had not been sent to the minister and refused to release others as they were "Cabinet in confidence". Other documents relating to the investigation area were also refused for the same reason.
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