The federal government has been accused of erecting a wall of secrecy around the details of a $250million Port of Newcastle container terminal funding package.
The Newcastle Herald sought information about the previous government's infamous abandoned funding plan for the port via a Commonwealth Freedom of Information application to the Department of Infrastructure.
In response we received 160 pages that had been completely redacted.
Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce had been scheduled to announce the enabling infrastructure funding during the election campaign on May 6.
However the announcement, which had the backing of former prime minister Scott Morrison, was mysteriously dumped 24 hours before it was due to occur.
The Herald has previously revealed intense lobbying from the coal industry and state government, which are opposed to the establishment of a container terminal in Newcastle, persuaded Mr Morrison to abandon the funding package at the last moment.
In its reply to the Herald, the department confirmed it held 19 relevant documents totalling 160 pages.
These included briefing notes and draft Cabinet submissions about the funding, which formed part of the previous government's Energy Security and Regional Development Plan.
The department ruled much of the material sought by the Herald was exempt because it fell under the classification of 'Cabinet'.
These documents are withheld to "protect the confidentiality of the cabinet process and to ensure the principle of collective ministerial responsibility is not undermined."
Documents classified as 'Business affairs' were also withheld. Documents in this category were exempt because they may disclose information about the financial or commercial affairs of an organisation and may adversely impact on the organisation's operations or its engagement with the government.
But the Port of Newcastle had been actively lobbying for government support and it is unlikely that the disclosure of such information would adversely impact on the port's affairs.
In addition, the department said that it had considered comments provided by the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet about the matter.
The office declined to comment on what information it had provided about the matter and referred the Herald's questions back to the Department of Infrastructure.
The Herald is appealing the government's decision.
Freedom of information and privacy law specialist Peter Timmins said the government's refusal to release any of the information that it held about the funding deal pointed to a prevailing culture of secrecy among governments and their agencies.
It follows similar cases highlighted in the Herald's award winning Your Right to Know campaign.
Case studies have included attempts to obtain information via the NSW GIPA Act on cancer treatment waiting times and the government's plans to develop the Broadmeadow sports and entertainment precinct and plans to extend Newcastle light rail network.
Mr Timmins said the federal government's response to the request for information about the Newcastle port funding flew in the face of its pledge to introduce a "more open and transparent era."
"There is still a way to go for a reset of 'tone at the top' and for that message to get through to some government agencies. In this case, the reasons for refusing access are assertions that may or may not withstand scrutiny," he said.
"Must every skerrick of information provided by the Port of Newcastle remain confidential-they don't appear to have been consulted? It's ridiculous to have sent 160 pages of blank paper.
"Independent review by the Australian Information Commissioner-regrettably a very slow process- would seem the only way forward in seeking to unveil what happened within government on this important issue."
A Port of Newcastle spokeswoman confirmed the port had not been consulted about the FOI request.
"This suite of documents seems to be evidence that the (funding) proposal was well developed in the department over a period of time. We look forward to reading it," she said.
The previous government intended to fund the port infrastructure announcement from the $7.1 billion Energy Security and Regional Development Plan announced in the March budget.
Internal Morrison government documents show the container terminal listed among $787 million worth of projects that were slated for the Hunter as part of the $4 billion region's package.
The federal government, which is identifying millions in savings from the Coalition's budget that it describes as 'waste and rorts', has not indicated if it will commit funds to the container terminal in its October budget.
Hunter-based National Party senator Ross Cadell, who was previously employed at the port to lobby for the container terminal, demanded the government follow through on the Coalition's support for the port's diversification and also release the documents it held about the $250million funding package.
"We heard Labor in the campaign talk about transparency and open government. Now elected they are not only trying to make a $250 million dollar government decision disappear but they have also made 160 pages of documents go with it," he said.
"(Infrastructure Minister) Catherine King is starting to look like the David Copperfield of Australian politics in making Hunter infrastructure vanish."
The federal government has cited state government imposed legal constraints as the main impediment to the Port of Newcastle's diversification.
Fifty-year government lease agreements, known as port commitment deeds, were entered into as part of the privatisation of Port Botany and Port Kembla by the NSW government in May 2013.
The deeds, revealed by the Herald in 2016, oblige the government to compensate the lessee, the NSW Ports consortium, if container traffic at the Port of Newcastle exceeds an indexed cap, which began at 30,000 containers annually. The cap presently sits at an estimated 57,000 containers.
Meanwhile, the Port of Newcastle commissioned two new mobile harbour cranes on Monday as part of its diversification strategy.
Port chief executive Craig Carmody, and Macquarie Group managing director Shemara Wikramanayake officially opened the cranes, which will commence cargo and container handling in September.
With an outreach of 54 metres, and a lifting capacity of 104 tonnes, Mr Carmody said the $A32.4-million crane investment marked a significant increase in an expanded and improved container, break-bulk and project cargo handling capability for customers at the port.
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