On 30 June 2009 I received a phone call from a woman in the office of the Victorian Ombudsman acknowledging receipt of my complaint letter about the City of Yarra’s refusal to release food hygiene inspection information into the public domain.

The woman did not seem to understand the substantive point of my complaint or the outcome I wish to achieve, despite the fact I state both clearly in the letter. She focused on a narrow legalistic determination of what the Ombudsman’s office could do.

She explained that the office of the Ombudsman is not the appropriate body to determine whether the City of Yarra’s refusal to release the names of the businesses because of privacy concerns is justified.

I have to apply for a hearing at VCAT to contest Yarra’s rejection of my appeal against their refusal to release the business names, and this will cost me $198.60. These fees are obstacles established by the state to hinder the public’s access to information.

It seems that VCAT has more power than the Ombudsman. If so, why do we need both? It’s more bureaucratic duplication and a waste of resources.

The Ombudsman is however able to address the reason given by council for not releasing the details of the offences: that compiling all the information for release would be an unreasonable burden on its resources.

The council has undermined its own argument here. The council provided me with an electronic spreadsheet with the columns containing this information removed, and noted this in its letter to me, thus demonstrating that it has the information in an easily accessible format.

The City of Yarra is being dishonest by claiming that it doesn’t have the information in an accessible format and that compiling it would create an unreasonable amount of work.

Asking the Ombudsman to further examine this aspect of the case alone is pointless. Proving that there is no unreasonable burden to overcome may force the council release the information detailing the nature of the offences, but this information is still useless without the corresponding business names.

I though the office of the Ombudsman is supposed to be a impartial advocate for fairness and decency, but in this instance it has proved itself to be useless and pathetic.

According to its own website, the Ombudsman supposedly “promotes excellence in public administration in Victoria and seeks to ensure the highest possible standards of public sector service delivery to all Victorians.”

How is it supporting public sector service delivery to the people of Victoria by helping the City of Yarra bury important information of significant public interest?

The Ombudsman appears just like every other branch of the Labor infested political machinery of Victoria – a pathetic excuse for bureaucratic ineptitude that is driven primarily by a stubborn refusal to take responsibility for the public good. Public transport policy anyone?

The City of Yarra is dominated by the Labor party with the Greens as its pets. My local member of state parliament is Labor. My local member of federal parliament is Labor. They will never conflict with each over policy issues.

I wrote to my state MP about this issue and all I got was the standard patronising form letter acknowledging my letter and telling me how great the local MP is.

The Labor party maintains that it is official party policy to release food hygiene inspection information in NSW yet maintain absolute secrecy about the same issue in Victoria. That to me is a simple and irrefutable definition of corruption. There is no logic, ethics or decency to this policy. It’s pure despicable politics.

The people of Victoria should be able to access information they have paid for in order to maintain their own health. By failing to acknowledge and address the substantive issue in this case, the Victorian Ombudsman is failing the people of Victoria.

I’m in the process of obtaining further legal advice and am preparing to lodge my application with VCAT to have it consider the privacy issue.

Update 27 July 2009: I finally received a written acknowledgement from the Ombudsman’s office in the form of a letter dated 23 July. The letter confirmed what I state above and asked me to call a particular staff member to confirm that I wanted the investigation to proceed. I called and left a message, which was not returned, then I called again and left another message and eventually received a return call from another staff member acknowledging that I wanted the investigation to continue. Bureaucracy…

Fitzroyalty vs City of Yarra – food hygiene FOI battle round four

6 thoughts on “Fitzroyalty vs City of Yarra – food hygiene FOI battle round four

  • 10 July 2009 at 1:46 pm
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    It is an interesting read for sure…
    A problem I can see is that under the Food Act council is unable to release the information. They would want to! Really they would LOVE to name and shame their crappy shops and praise the better ones, but as it currently stands it is an offence under the Act to release it.
    (Blame state government for this)

    Reply
    • 10 July 2009 at 2:04 pm
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      That is the legal advice I have received. However, if the City of Yarra was genuine about transparency it would do a lot of things differently, such as publish what it can itself and not fight my FOI on petty excessive workload arguments (the argument they used to refuse to release the details of the offences).

      It could lobby the state government for changes to the Food Act. It could do something, but it does nothing and deliberately obstructs others trying to do something.

      The Ombudsman’s office explicitly refused to even acknowledge the substantive issue of public health. My state MP defended the current state of secrecy. They’re all antiquated pathetic useless apologists for greedy business owners who profit from us while making us sick.

      I will be posting on this topic again soon once my legal strategy is finalised.

      Reply
  • 10 July 2009 at 3:09 pm
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    Just in reply, the law is changing starting next year. All Councils have lobbied hard in fact for big changes to the law to give Health Officers greater powers and one the spot fines etc. It will be more transparent, but not to the extent the profession and the public wants.

    Currently the most a council could release, in my opinon, are stats on compliance rates and how many food samples failed etc. but no specific details to actual businesses. Why they do not publish these could a few things, such as laziness, lack of resources/staff (most likely) or even poor compliance rates or food sample results showing council in a bad light etc.

    I understand your frustration and I wish it were easier with new intiatives such as the New York City style scores of A+ to F on the front windows, but to me the state government does not want to push so hard on businesses. Which is a real shame.

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    • 10 July 2009 at 5:12 pm
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      How or where has the council publicised this lobbying? I didn’t know it was happening and the council has not mentioned it in their correspondence with me.

      I have published the compliance statistics based on what I got from my FOI. The City of Yarra refused to release the details of the offences and went out of its way to do more work to delete this information from the spreadsheet before it gave it to me. It then claimed it was too much work to gather this information. Their trustworthiness on this issue is zero.

      The council does not seem to think that its role is to provide services to the community. One service is the provision of information. The information published by the City of Yarra about many of its activities is inconsistent and unhelpful.

      Information is in the print newletter but not on the website (apart from the PDFs of the newsletter), draft plans are released for public comment but are not listed in the public comment section, etc. I could list errors and failures all day.

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    • 19 July 2009 at 10:53 am
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      Interesting. Based on what we have learned from NSW, I wonder if this new law will also force local councils to perform inspections to the same uniform standards and report in a mandatory fashion to the state health department? Part of the problem is that there are no consistent standards between councils and the state government does not know what they are doing because it had nto previously demanded to receive all the data, and apparently has not received it in a consistent format.

      Reply

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