Newcastle City Council staff unwittingly used as dirt unit in election war

INFLUENCE: Newcastle City Council has received an increase in freedom of information requests in the lead-up to Saturday's Local Government elections.
INFLUENCE: Newcastle City Council has received an increase in freedom of information requests in the lead-up to Saturday's Local Government elections.

NEWCASTLE City Council staff have unwittingly been used as a dirt unit in the lead-up to Saturday’s local government elections.

As the election campaign grinds on, Fairfax Media can reveal that the council has been flooded with Government Information Public Access (GIPA) requests in the past three months.

The information has been shopped by political strategists to the media, leaked within parties and between them, in an effort to do reputational damage or gain a political edge.

Introduced by the state Labor government in 2009, the GIPA system replaced the Freedom of Information Act. 

GIPA was designed to shift the focus of governments from seeking to keep information secret, to a system with a "proactive disclosure" bias.

According to the Information and Privacy Commission NSW, GIPA aims to foster government that is “open, accountable, fair and effective”.

But, over the past few months in Newcastle, the system has been used as a dirt-digging tool in the lead-up to Saturday’s council elections.

Applications can be extremely time consuming for council staff tasked with going through everything from emails to text messages. 

A council spokesman confirmed “a significant increase” in requests compared to last year. Council received 25 GIPA requests in the past three months, compared to 12 over the same period last year and 36 to September 1, last year.

“Previously GIPAs were largely the domain of insurance companies seeking information to assist them in determining liability in claims made by their customers,” he said. 

“Or perhaps from residents wanting to better understand the process behind council decisions that they might not support. Today, an increasing number of the applications seek information relating to councillors or senior staff.”

The spokesman said all requests were processed “in the same manner”, regardless of the information sought.

Included in the list of GIPAs lodged this year are the employment records of the general manager, expense claims of council officials and the emails and text messages of senior staff and councillors.

Government agencies are required to process all eligible applications. It costs $30 to lodge a GIPA and an applicant can be charged a fee of $30 per hour if the request is time consuming.