DARK DAYS: “Commercial in confidence has become the go-to obfuscation curtain for those wishing to avoid scrutinisation of the planning decisions of the NSW government and its development arms.” Picture: Max Mason-HubersIN NEWCASTLE, the information age should be renamed the non-information age. The golden year era of the non-information age in the future jewel of the Asia Pacific started with UrbanGrowth NSW, its secret deals with the GPT Group and the spot rezoning of sites around the Hunter Street mall.
Basic details about the sale price of the mall were regarded as commercial in confidence. Yet the sale of the Port of Newcastle by the government for $1.75 billion was trumpeted far and wide. Commercial in confidence has become the go-to obfuscation curtain for those wishing to avoid scrutinisation of the planning decisions of the NSW government and its development arms. There’s a resignation from community groups and journalists to expect that response when inquiring about even seemingly bland planning decisions.
Revitalising Newcastle refused a Herald request to name the successful tenderer of a narrow strip of corridor land marketed as Merewether Street East and an adjoining block on Hunter Street called Darby Plaza.This is despite a spokesperson for Revitalising Newcastle sayinglast May that the “EOI (expressions of interest) process for both sites has now closed and we look forward to announcing the successful tenderer or tenderers in the near future”.
Almost six months after that undertaking, a spokesperson for Revitalising Newcastle – now controlled by the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation – said the successful tenderer would remain commercial in confidence. It did not say when an announcement would be made regarding the buyer’s identity.
Why can’t the people of Newcastle be told who has bought a part of the former rail corridor and adjoining land? Could it be a new car park company headed up by developer, car parking enthusiast and former lord mayor Jeff McCloy? Could it have been bought by a multinational conglomerate aiming to vertically integrate Newcastle’s boom industries of coffee shops, Thai massage parlours and bespoke markets? Or is it an organisation that Coalition advisors reckon will make a terrific announcement closer to the March election?
Regardless, this keeping people in the dark about the owner of this site deserves deep disdain. The government’s development arm in Newcastle does itself no favours by failing to live up to a previousundertaking and wheeling out the commercial in confidence excuse for non-disclosure.
The cost to taxpayers of the Hunter Development Corporation has skyrocketed since the NSW Coalition were elected. NSW parliamentary papers show thatwhen the Coalition won the 2011 election, the HDC had 20 employees and total wages were $2,408,000. In 2018, there are 22 employees and the projected wagesbill is set to hit $3,447,000. That’s a 43 per cent increase for two additional employees in seven years.
At NSW budget estimates in August, planning minister Anthony Roberts gave an undertaking to shadow local government minister Peter Primrose that he was “quite happy” to give a breakdown of the remuneration or salary provided to Michael Cassel, then chief executive of the HDC, the Central Coast Development Corporation and the project director for Revitalising Newcastle. Such information might have helped better understand the rocketing costs of HDC wages.But Roberts, despite that unconditional undertaking in the parliament, did not provide a breakdown of Cassel’s salary. His response was that Cassel was remunerated in accordance with the NSW Public Service Senior Executive Remuneration Management Framework. Hardly a breakdown.
Not long after questions regarding Cassel’s remuneration were asked in the parliament, the NSW government amalgamated the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporations. Two CEO jobs held by Cassel became one. Cassel remains the project director at Revitalising Newcastle.
Public access to government information is essential to maintaining faith in democratic governance, even in the absence of corruption. The free flow of information to interested members of the public is essential for their participation in the deliberative process and to hold elected representatives and appointees accountable.
Public disclosure of government information is not the only ingredient needed to sustain a healthy democracy, and disclosure has rarely been free from national security, privacy, and other considerations. But the commercial in confidence excuse depriving the NSW public of information on questions such as “who has bought this land?” has exceeded its use-by date. Challenging its use by government is costly and time consuming. Unwarranted reliance on it does not serve the public well and results in the exercise of authority being insulated from public oversight.
Its use needs an urgent overhaul. But Newcastle, don’t hold your breath.
Paul Scott is a lecturer in the School of Creative Industries at the University of Newcastle. In 2016, Herald readers voted him the Hunter’s most miserable man.