The EDO has recently won a case in VCAT to gain access to documents held by the Victorian Government, which the Government used to justify its decision to commence its contentious ‘alpine grazing trial’ in the Alpine National Park, which commenced in early 2011. You can read the ABC’s report here.
In this case, the EDO represented one of Victoria’s leading environment groups, the Victorian National Parks Association. The VNPA, which has long been involved in protecting our Alpine National Park, was trying to gain access to documents held by the Department of Sustainability and Environment that underpinned DSE’s decision to commence the alpine grazing trial.
In particular, VNPA was seeking access to a draft ‘literature review’ authored by an academic from the University of Sydney, which DSE had used to come to the opinion that the science on grazing and fire in the alps was inadequate, and there was a need for further research into whether cattle grazing was a useful way to reduce the bushfire risk. The VNPA have questioned this claim, and believe that the trial is in fact scientifically unsound – and moreover has the potential to damage the unique environmental values of the Alpine National Park.
The VNPA first lodged a request to obtain these documents under the Freedom of Information Act in March last year. The Department initially failed to respond to VNPA’s request within the legal time limit, and so VNPA appealed this failure to VCAT. The Department then decided to grant access to some documents, and refuse access to others, including the draft ‘literature review’ on the basis that they were exempt under the FOI Act, including because it was not in the public interest for the documents to be released. The VNPA disagreed.
In its decision, the Tribunal recognised the environmental significance of the Alpine National Park. It is also recognised the contentious political nature of the alpine grazing trial, and the fact that it had generated a large amount of public interest, discussion and debate.
The Tribunal found that the DSE had not sufficiently proven why the documents at issue should be withheld from the public under the FOI Act, and ordered the release of the draft literature review.
The decision shows that the public, and organisations like VNPA with significant expertise in the area, have the right to access information so that they can publicly question and debate the science of controversial policies that impact the environment, like the alpine grazing trial. The FOI Act gives the community broad rights to access such information. The Tribunal decision in this case has upheld that broad right.
The Government continues to assert that it intends to push ahead with the trial, although this has been set back by the Federal Government’s refusal to approve the trial because it was completely unacceptable under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.