Wed 24/08/2011 Melissa Fyfe, The Age
MELBOURNE Water has conceded it collected ''a large amount'' of personal information about one of its most vocal critics and will make a public apology for causing her distress.
A year-long legal battle ended yesterday when the water authority agreed to publish an apology to 63-year-old Yea farmer Jan Beer, a lead campaigner against the north-south pipeline. The apology will be published on its website and in two regional Victorian newspapers next month.
The apology says in part: ''Melbourne Water acknowledges that the collection of her personal information has caused Mrs Beer to feel that she was being continually monitored and to feel that her privacy had been invaded. Melbourne Water apologises to Mrs Beer for any distress experienced by her in relation to its collection of her personal information.''
The Sunday Age last year revealed Melbourne Water had spied on, filmed and photographed Mrs Beer, as well as tailed her while driving. Her activities were tracked, noted and shared with police over two years. The information came to light after Melbourne Water released 88 documents to Mrs Beer under freedom of information laws.
The information collected included notes on Mrs Beer's protest activities and her movements away from pipeline sites, such as a talk she gave to students at a local wetland.
Mrs Beer, who ran unsuccessfully as an independent for the seat of Seymour in the state election, was pleased yesterday with the outcome in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. ''We've pursued them for a year through VCAT without giving up because I felt I was in the right all along,'' Mrs Beer said. ''I am really pleased.''
In the apology – which the parties have agreed will appear by mid-September – Melbourne Water said it believed the information was collected to ensure the safety and the security of its pipeline workforce and the public. But the apology also acknowledges ''the rights of interested community members to peacefully protest and to take an interest in ensuring that public projects are environmentally compliant without their rights to privacy being infringed''.
Last year the former state government was unapologetic about the monitoring of protesters such as Mrs Beer at the controversial north-south pipeline and the desalination plant. Former Water Minister Tim Holding justified the monitoring by pointing to a history of what he said was threatening and aggressive behaviour by the pipeline opponents.
Mrs Beer's lawyer said her client was targeted for simply scrutinising a large, controversial infrastructure project. ''It is a significant result for all Victorians who have ever questioned or disagreed with a government decision,'' said solicitor Elizabeth McKinnon, from the Environment Defenders Office.