Sunday, June 15, 2008

the long march

More excitement at Rotto Bloggo HQ: we’re about to get a document from the Rottnest island Authority. It’s taken 329 days so far, the longest completed FoI request we’ve ever done, but we’re near the end.

On 20 July we submitted a Freedom of Information request and $30 for the Market Equity report. The RIA didn’t want to cough up all of it, so in August FoI coordinator Fiona Westenhaver posted us most of it – “third party information” was removed.

The removed information was about Means of Transport to Rottnest Island (ie which ferries people catch, and maybe what they think of them), and the seven pages of Businesses on Rottnest Island section (what people think about the shops on Rotto). We blogged about the information we did get.

In September we requested the removed material. But acting director finance and business services Ken Chinnery was having none of it: “I have reviewed the third party information in question and am withholding this information on the basis of the exemption under Schedule 1, clause 4 section 2 of the Freedom of Information Act 1992 which states that;
Matter is exempt matter if its disclosure –
(a) Would reveal information (other than trade secrets) that has a commercial value to a person; and
(b) Could reasonably be expected to destroy or diminish that commercial value.

Right right. We had 60 days to appeal. So on October 11 we wrote to the Commish. Our argument for releasing the rest: some third party information was already in the material released to us: what people thought of the cleaning contractors, for example. As we wrote: “Also released…in the report were details about visitor recollections of the Authority advertising in The West Australian and The Sunday Times. There was visitor feedback on ferry services being too expensive, and visitor feedback on the post office. These are all private businesses, yet I am unaware of any destroyed or diminished commercial value due to this feedback being released to me.”

The Commish’s people wrote back five days later. There was a bit of back-and-forth over the next few weeks over what sort of information we might be happy with: consulting all the third parties in the report would be time-consuming, so would we be happy with something else?

“For example, in lieu of pursuing access to specific detailed information about named businesses, whether you would consider accepting access to more general information about the goods and service providers operating on Rottnest Island,” the Commish’s people wondered.

No, it was all or nothing according to Rotto Bloggo. The new year came and went, and it was April when there was a development.

"On 17 April 2008, I wrote to the agency and advised it that, having
examined the disputed document and the FOI file maintained by the agency in relation to your access application, the A/Commissioner is of the view that the decision on access may not be justified,” the Office of the IC said.

"More particularly, the A/Commissioner is of the view that, on the basis of the evidence presently before this office, the agency has not established that the information deleted from the disputed document is exempt under clause 4(2) of Schedule 1 to the FOI Act, as claimed. In light of the above, the agency has been invited to reconsider its decision on access.”

In other words, cough it up! But the RIA wasn’t giving up without further struggle: a few days later, the Office said “the agency does not accept my view of this matter”, and enclosed its reasoning.

Rotto Bloggo dusted off the microscope, had several strong long blacks, scratched our heads and pursed our lips, and wrote back to the FoI people…

‘Regarding Page 29 – Means of Transport to Rottnest Island, the RIA says: “The data is broken up by individual commercial provider and details the % of visitors using each provider.” The RIA claims the data “could provide an indicative market share”, and this information “is not readily available to the general public”.

‘In fact, ample information about ferry companies is made readily available to the general public by the ferry companies themselves. Rottnest Express says: “Rottnest Express has the dominant share of the Rottnest Island market carrying over 60% of all visitors to the Island”.
This is not disputed by Oceanic Cruises.
That Rottnest Express has a dominant share is hardly surprising: it has seven ferry trips to the island most days of the week (except Friday, when it has eight trips).
Oceanic Cruises’ trips range from five a day (December to April) to two on four out of five weekdays (May to September).

‘It is hard to accept the RIA’s argument about this information having commercial value when details about ferry trips and ferry passenger capacities are made freely available.

‘Also, only Rottnest Express and Oceanic Cruises could really be regarded as competitors, as they both depart from Perth and Fremantle: Rottnest Fast Ferries’ trips to the island are all ex-Hillarys.

‘Regarding Pages 44-51, Businesses on Rottnest Island, the RIA claims the pages contain “a comparison of customer satisfaction, for each of the commercial businesses”.

‘I do not understand what the customer satisfaction is being compared with. If, for example, customer satisfaction with the post office is being compared against customer satisfaction with the bakery, it’s hard to see how the post office would suffer commercially if it were to be reported people are less satisfied with it than they are with the bakery.

‘The RIA claims making these comparisons public could lead to commercial advantage for someone, which would be to the detriment of the island as a business might lose market share and leave the island.

‘I am skeptical about this claim. Many of the businesses on Rottnest are monopolistic: there is one bakery, one surf shop, one newsagent, one dive shop, one health centre, one fun park, etc. If they were no good, and had already had negative feedback and couldn’t survive, they surely would have already left the island.

‘There are several food providers on the island. They cater to a captive market. I can’t recall the last time I saw or heard advertising from these providers extolling their benefits. And as the RIA says in its letter, it “takes actions” when looking at the “business mix” on the island – that is, it won’t renew a business’ lease if it doesn’t think they’re doing a good job.’

There was another pause of several weeks until, on Tuesday afternoon, the FoI people called in the late afternoon to say the rest of the report would be made available.

There was a final twist: the Rottnest Island Authority was going to put it in their library, and did I want to pop down there to read it?

This was tres cheeky. The woman at the FoI office accepted my desire to have the stuff sent to us by the RIA: “you’ve done the hard running”, she noted. Hard running? It’s been like a dozen marathons.

By Thursday it still hadn’t arrived, so we called the RIA. Had it been put in the post? Yes it had. But still no sign of it on Friday. Tomorrow? Fingers crossed.

What an “abnormally long time” (words of woman at FoI office) to get this stuff. It makes us wonder: is the information earth-shaking? We suspect not. It’s probably more the typical public servant attitude of wanting to keep information to themselves. Did it really need to take close to a year and generate paperwork one centimetre thick? Surely not.

* The next 500 words of Rottnest Romance will be posted tomorrow...thank you for your salacious comments :-)

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