Transparent or top secret?

Article by Dan Jervis-Brady, courtesy of the West Australian.

A probe into whether the Environmental Defenders Office breached the terms of its taxpayer-funded contract during the Barossa gas pipeline legal saga is shrouded in secrecy, with the Federal Government refusing to guarantee its findings will be publicly released.

The West can reveal the Environment Department has outsourced the review of the EDO to a private legal firm — but is refusing to explain why.

The Opposition said handballing the review was “beyond belief”, and it renewed calls for Labor to end all Federal funding to the environment litigation organisation.

The review was ordered after the Federal Court savaged the conduct of the EDO as the court tossed out a bid to halt Santos’ Barossa gas project. Justice Natalie Charlesworth accused the EDO — which represented Tiwi Islanders in the drawn-out legal battle — of confecting evidence and coaching witnesses.

The West has obtained the letter Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek sent EDO chief executive David Morris a fortnight after the January verdict, in which she encouraged the firm to treat the criticisms seriously and “act to ensure there is no repeat of this kind of behaviour”.

“As with any organisation in receipt of public funds, the Australian people, quite rightly, expect the EDO to exhibit the highest ethical and professional standards. That is my expectation, too,” Ms Plibersek said in a February 2 letter, released under freedom of information.

Labor has allocated $8.2 million over four years to the EDO, restoring Commonwealth support for the organisation after it was axed under the Coalition.

Ms Plibersek made it clear Labor still backed the organisation despite the court’s findings.

Mr Morris and EDO chair Bronwyn Darlington responded on February 7, assuring Ms Plibersek that it took its professional obligations “very seriously” and was carefully considering the court’s findings.

The minister asked her department to investigate if the EDO’s conduct breached the terms of its grant agreement. Department secretary David Fredericks told Senate Estimates on February 12 that the review had “just commenced and is ongoing”.

In the two months since, there have been no public updates about the status of the probe.

But it has emerged that an “independent external provider” was conducting the review rather that the department itself.

A department spokeswoman confirmed to The West that an “independent legal provider” had been brought in but refused to disclose the name of the firm or explain why it was needed. The department was non-committal when asked if the findings would be publicly released.

“Once the review is complete, the department will consider next steps,” the spokeswoman said. The EDO last month announced a panel of independent legal experts to review its own practices after the Barossa saga.

The review will make recommendations on working with First Nations clients and communities, including in court cases involving cultural heritage.

Shadow environment minister Jonno Duniam said it was “beyond belief” the Government was paying for an independent investigation when Justice Charlesworth’s findings were so “clear and damning”.

He added: “Instead of prolonging yet another of her secretive processes — and hiding behind it — she (Ms Plibersek) should make the results and costs of this review public.”