The Abbott Government’s decision to defund the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA) was sudden, swift and unexpected. Past and present Presidents of ADCA condemned the decision as ‘hasty and poorly considered’.
It’s true that when it comes to budget deficit reduction, the newly-elected Government has wasted no time in identifying and realising cost-saving measures.
Yet when it comes to providing answers as to why the Government targeted ADCA, and saw fit to defund a respected and valued peak organisation for the sake of very minimal savings, no such responses have been forthcoming.
Why was ADCA targeted? What was the considered rationale and grounds for defunding a national peak organisation that had played such a successful and pivotal role in developing effective drug and alcohol strategies for half a century?
It’s not just Drink Tank looking for answers.
On 29 November last year, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) submitted a request to the Australian Government Department of Health for documents under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act (the Act), asking for
…all advice from the Department of Health during the period of 7 September 2013 to 28 November 2013 to the Minister for Health, the Hon Peter Dutton MP and the Assistant Minister for Health, Senator the Hon Fiona Nash in relation to the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA).
Speaking to Drink Tank, FARE Chief Executive Michael Thorn says the nature of this particular FOI request was extremely time sensitive.
“With ADCA due to turn off the lights for the last time at the end of February, the request for any information that would shed light on the decision making process is time critical”, Mr Thorn said.
In response to the FOI request, the Department of Health replied with a standard notification that the request had been received and that in accordance with the provisions of the Act, a decision would be made within 30 days and provided no later than 29 December 2013.
Ten days past the due date, it appeared that the Department was dragging its feet.
An email dated 7 January 2014 from FARE to the Health Department asking when FARE might receive advice on the decision was met with this response on 9 January 2014.
On 20 December 2013, the Department made a request via email to you for an extension of time to process your request. As a response had not been received from you the Department, in accordance with section 15AC of the Freedom of Information Act 1982, sought an extension of time from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC). The OAIC granted an extension of time until close of business 10 January 2014 for the Department to provide you with a decision in relation to you request (OAIC reference RQ14/00010). The Department is working towards this timeframe, however due to a number of circumstances it is possible that this timeframe may not be able to be met. I will keep you informed as to when the Department will be in a position to provide you with a decision when I am able.
That might have been reasonable except for one small detail? FARE never received any such request for an extension.
FARE follows up with the Department and requests and subsequently receives a forwarded copy of the ‘missing’ email, which indicates the email in question had been sent to an incorrect address.
The incorrect address contained a space and a comma. Could such an email have been successfully sent? No.
An email address contains three parts; the ‘local’ address, an ‘@’ symbol, and a ‘domain’ part. Email addresses don’t contain commas, however commas are used to separate email addresses from each other within the header field. As such, an email client would have automatically read the incorrect address as not one, but two separate entries.
While not the ‘correct’ FARE email address, the first entry would have been accepted by the email client as a ‘valid’ address conforming to the email address conventions explained above. However the second entry consisting of just two letters ‘au’ would have been rejected as a non-valid address.
It is highly unlikely then that, as allegedly entered, the message could have been sent by the email client in the first place. Even if it had been ‘sent’, it would have immediately bounced back, and in turn, the sender, would have received an error notification indicating message failure.
More correspondence: FARE informs the Department of its error. The Department’s response:
I apologise for the error, due to current leave arrangements I am unable to confirm whether or not an ‘undeliverable message’ was received that would have alerted the Department to the error whereby attempts to rectify would have been made.
Notwithstanding budget cuts and summer holidays, are we really to believe that there’s not a single person in the entire Department of Health with access to the mail server?
The extension granted until 10 January passes, and still no advice is received.
An email from FARE sent to the Department on 13 January querying the further delay receives a reply three days later. On 16 January, the Department writes:
My apologies for the delay in responding to you.
While the Department is continuing to work on your request, we were not in a position to provide you with a decision by the extended due date. While I cannot provide you with a definitive date at this time, I will be in contact next week to provide you with an update.
I would like to take this opportunity to advise you that due the circumstances the Department will not be imposing charges for this particular request.
Far from a generous and conciliatory offer to waive charges, the Department in fact is not allowed to impose charges having failed to comply with the request within the time frames allowed. In the face of what appears to be continued stonewalling from the Department, FARE lodges an application for a review with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) on 16 January.
On 28 January OAIC writes to FARE stating that the Department of Health had failed to comply with the directions of the OAIC.
It confirms that the Department of Health is now aiming to finalise a decision by 31 January.
I understand that the Department has not acted according to the FOI Act so far as complying with the directions of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the due dates imposed by the agreed extension of time, however I think it is best if we deal with this once the 31 January has passed.
If you do not receive a reply by this date, I will conduct more enquiries with the Department.
FARE agrees to wait a further three days, however the Department of Health’s self-imposed deadline also passes.
The following Monday, 3 February, FARE Chief Executive, Michael Thorn receives an email from Department of Health Assistant Secretary, Colleen Krestensen further apologising for the delay.
Hoping to get decision letter to you today. Apologies for the delay – I know you were expecting it Friday. This has been an issue of coordination across the Department in the search for and release of documents.
If there is any further delay I will certainly let you know.
The delay was in fact a short one. FARE received a decision from the Department via email at 3:39 that afternoon.
Unfortunately, that long overdue decision from the Department ultimately sheds no light on ADCA’s defunding, but rather raises more concerns about the defunding decision.
The Department identified a total of five documents as falling under FARE’s request.
Of those five, only one, identified as ‘Email to Population Health division – Notification of Ministerial decisions on grants/contracts/NPAs’ is released, but only ‘in part’ and so heavily redacted as to be rendered worthless.
In summarising the reason for the decision, the Department finds that releasing the documents was not, on balance, in the public interest, arguing that mutual confidence and trust between the Department and Minister must be protected.
FARE Chief Executive Michael Thorn says the decision is wrong and expects a subsequent appeal to the OAIC to overrule the Department.
“This FOI request was made with the sole purpose of finding out why ADCA was defunded. The advice the Department of Health provided to the Minister is precisely the information we seek. My fear is that there was no thought or consideration put into this decision. If there was, the Department would be eager to put that evidence on the table,” Mr Thorn said.
Click on the image to follow the FOI paper trail.
What then of the delays in providing FARE with a decision. Of greatest concern, the Notice of Decision is signed and dated 23 January 2014, a full 11 days prior to its electronic transmission and receipt on 3 February 2014. Remember, the Department of Health responded to the OAIC and stated they required an additional three day extension to process the request and would endeavour to meet that 31 January deadline.
What are we to make of the letter dated 23 January?
Why was the Department asking the OAIC for more time to reach a decision when the decision, as disappointing as it was, had already been made, and the letter signed and dated 23 January 2014?
What does that say about the Department of Health’s respect for the OAIC?
Why did Assistant Secretary, Colleen Krestensen contact FARE via email on 3 February apologising for the delay, when not only had the documents been identified and a decision made, but it was she who had signed the letter, 11 days prior on 23 January. There can be no excuse that in a large Government Department the left hand doesn’t always know what the right hand is doing; not in this case, when both hands belong to the same public servant.
Of course none of this is proof of some grand conspiracy.
Perhaps FARE’s FOI request has simply suffered the fate of countless requests that have come before. That those delays, are not borne of deliberate refusal to cooperate, but rather are symptomatic of a bumbling bureaucracy, itself a victim of year-on-year efficiency reviews.
Perhaps there is no way of knowing if an email bounced back. Perhaps the Department of Health and its 6000 public servants are served by one lonely IT staffer in the basement, currently on leave as a result of all the stress.
Regardless, we are left with more questions unanswered.
There is no comfort, and only greater frustration for the staff of ADCA, and the sector on which it relies, as ADCA’s final days draw to an end.
The FOI request may not have revealed a smoking gun, but Michael Thorn believes the one document released in part and heavily redacted, together with recent confirmation of a government review of drug and alcohol organisations which receive funding from the Department of Health points to worrying times ahead for the public health sector.
“My very real concern is that the document we did obtain was in fact a hit list; a hit list of public health sector peak organisations that are incorrectly viewed by the current Government as expendable and worthless, and now, like ADCA, in the firing line. The Government has appointed Jenny Hefford to conduct a review into the Government funding of these organisations. It can only be hoped that any such review is rigorous and transparent, and not simply a means to further weaken the sector and conclude a predetermined government agenda.” Mr Thorn said.
Editor’s Note: Drink Tank has made available online, all documentation and correspondence received in response to this FOI request, and referenced above.