OVER the past nine years, 800 million people have been born into the world, YouTube and Facebook were invented and the Iraq War passed into history, but Will Matthews, an actuary from East Brighton in Melbourne, is still waiting for his freedom-of-information request to be processed.
So Homeric is this voyage by a lone campaigner through the remote and hostile seas of bureaucracy that, when the subject of an epic FOI was raised in conversation with the new Office of the Australian Information Commission – with nary so much as a mention of Matthews’ name – chairman, Professor John McMillan, simply intoned, ”Ah yes, the Matthews case.”
Matthews lodged his fateful request with the corporate regulator in October 2003. By 2007 he found himself in a legal showdown more redolent of the High Court than the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The AAT is the place where one goes when one has exhausted every other avenue.
On one side in the AAT matter there was he, Will Matthews, who rather naively believed that justice, truth and common sense must prevail.
On the other side were lawyers for the world’s biggest goldminer, Newmont, investment banking powerhouse Macquarie, Clayton Utz, insolvency firm Taylor Woodings, Matthew Gill, the manager of the Beaconsfield Mine in Tasmania, and the mine’s owner, Allstate Explorations.
This glittering cast of big-city lawyers sat with the Australian Securities & Investments Commission, which had its own taxpayer-funded barristers, and which had been punctiliously stonewalling Matthews’ FOI request since 2003.
Rolling forward another five years and, this very week, the commission informed the obstinate Matthews that it would release documents to him ”outside of the FOI Act”.
What? After nine years, and millions of taxpayer dollars expended in pettifogging, they would simply surrender and hand their weathered adversary the stuff he had been asking for all along? Presumably they no longer wish to be bound by the Freedom of Information Act.
In a watershed 219-page judgment in August 2010, the AAT overturned 90 per cent of the ”public interest” exemptions claimed by ASIC and ordered it to hand over the documents. It still hasn’t.
What is this information so jealously guarded by ASIC and its corporate consorts?
When the company that controlled the Beaconsfield Mine bit the dust in 2001, in controversial circumstances, ASIC had begun an investigation.
Allstate, the company that controlled the Beaconsfield mine, had appointed a small Perth insolvency group, Taylor Woodings, as administrator.
There was a cry of foul play from Will Matthews and other minority Allstate shareholders. They said the mine should never have been put in administration in the first place. Where were the missing accounts?
When it needed an expert to examine the Allstate gold hedge books, ASIC duly enlisted the assistance of the actuary Will Matthews.
The relationship was fine until the regulator suddenly stopped investigating and refused to explain why. Frustrated, Matthews filed his FOI to find out. This single administrative request has now outlasted three ASIC chairmen.
It took four years before the corporate regulator was ordered to release roughly one quarter of the documents sought. It hasn’t.
During the myriad hearings, Matthews showed that key ASIC records had gone missing. This was confirmed by the commission’s silk, Richard Niall, who advised the tribunal that the documents had subsequently been found.
Years earlier, Niall had warned Matthews that, if he wished to proceed with the matter, it would turn into a ”circus”. Too true.