Monday, October 27, 2008

Secrecy over $500m in transport money -

Clay Lucas

CONTROVERSIAL laws have been used to stop the public finding out how Connex and Yarra Trams plan to spend over half a billion dollars of public money.

The Brumby Government has relied on commercial-in-confidence laws — which it attacked repeatedly while in opposition — to keep secret the two operators' annual planning documents.

Under freedom of information, The Age requested that the Government release Connex's and Yarra Trams' last five franchise business plans.

The business plans must be given to the Government annually to show how the companies plan to run Melbourne's train and tram network.

After speaking with Yarra Trams and Connex, the Department of Transport deemed the documents too sensitive to release.

"Disclosure would be likely to expose Connex and Yarra Trams … unreasonably to disadvantage," the department's legal adviser, Yvonne Han, said.

Access to Connex and Yarra Trams' most recent business plans was also blocked because it would hamper their bid to keep the lucrative contracts to run trains and trams here, she said.

Both companies are bidding to retain the contracts to run Melbourne's trains and trams for another 15 years. The winning tenderers for the contracts will be announced next July.

Connex and Yarra Trams refused to release their franchise business plans to The Age, also citing "commercial-in-confidence" reasons.

The companies will get $537 million in government payments this financial year, while each also earns over $200 million in fares.

Connex is owned by French company Veolia, and Yarra Trams is owned by MetroLink Victoria — a joint venture between France's TransDev and Australia's Transfield Services.

The Public Transport Users Association said the plans should be public because a privately run transport system needed complete transparency.

"A lot of taxpayer money is going to these companies, so we have a right to know how that money is being spent," president Daniel Bowen said.

Public Transport Minister Lynne Kosky declined to comment on the issue.

As opposition leader in the 1990s, Premier John Brumby repeatedly attacked the Kennett government's use of the commercial-in-confidence laws.

Mr Brumby, who promised greater transparency when he became Premier last July, told Parliament in 1994 that the Kennett government had a "propensity to hide behind freedom-of-information legislation and … use expressions like commercial-in-confidence" to keep documents secret.

Opposition transport spokesman Terry Mulder said: "Mr Brumby's hypocrisy in hiding these documents is exceeded only by his inability to deliver the roads, rail lines, trains and trams Victorians need."

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