Government staffers celebrated secrecy ruling, emails reveal
Government staffers celebrated secrecy ruling, emails reveal

‘We won!’ Celebrations as taxpayers kept in dark

Ping. An email hits the inbox of a Department of Premier and Cabinet policy officer.

"We Won!!!!" the subject line screams.

The email is a forwarded message, sent on to the Premier's office by Tracey Vieira, the then-head of the state's film investment company Screen Queensland just after 5pm that afternoon last August.

It is delivering the news that it has managed to strike out a decision that, if upheld, would have forced it to reveal how much cash it doled out to Disney to lure production of its film Pirates of the Caribbean, starring Johnny Depp, to Queensland.

"Here is the decision. As you will see it is very good for Screen Queensland," the email, obtained under Right to Information laws, says of the win in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

The "actual figure" would not be released as it was off-limits under an exemption to the RTI Act that protects the confidentiality of information that has come before State Cabinet, it continued.

"..that finding alone means that the figure will now not be released," the email finishes off.

"So this is a pretty decisive win all round..that is the end of the matter."

The email marked the end of a cliffhanger four-year David and Goliath RTI battle that one

Government RTI officer initially incorrectly advised in internal emails would "wither and die."

It had begun with a seemingly basic question from Gold Coast producer Chris Boyd - a relative minnow besides Disney's hefty box office presence.

Boyd, of Glass Media Group, wanted to know how much money taxpayers had handed over to lure Disney's fifth Pirates production to Queensland in 2014.

Glass Media Group's Christopher Boyd has been battling for more transparency in taxpayer-funded international film incentives.
Glass Media Group's Christopher Boyd has been battling for more transparency in taxpayer-funded international film incentives.

 

"It was a very innocent application," Boyd says.

"I thought within two months we would know."

Boyd, whose company works on local corporate and television productions, was never in the running for the funding, which targets multimillion-dollar productions.

But he had invested a lot of time giving young locals an industry leg-up and was concerned about the lack of real opportunities.

"At the time of the RTI application and ever since, I've thought that these incentives required much further examination and scrutiny, which we still aren't seeing," Boyd says.

"We are being told of the benefits of these projects without being told of the true cost, so the public, the industry and Government bodies such as the Queensland Competition Authority are unable to make accurate assessments.

"Large taxpayer funded investments on behalf of the industry, particularly when gifted to massive US corporations to make movies, should be subject to the highest levels of accountability."

What transpired was a cliffhanger four-year freedom of information battle that would pit Boyd against the might of Disney, the Government and Screen Queensland.

Almost a year earlier, the Campbell Newman-led administration had struck a deal with the billion-dollar California-based Disney Studios to film part of Pirates: Dead Men Tell No Tales - here.

"Met with Treasury and Pirates is a goer," an Arts Queensland bureaucrat wrote to Ms Vieira at the time.

"Top secret at this stage," the same bureaucrat wrote in another email.

Ms Vieira, who departed Screen Queensland last year after five-and-a-half years at the helm, had lobbied hard for the funds, insisting it was "not corporate welfare" but "job creation."

Tracey Vieira insisted film incentives to lure international film productions was “job creation” rather than “corporation welfare” while CEO of Screen Queensland until August 2019.
Tracey Vieira insisted film incentives to lure international film productions was “job creation” rather than “corporation welfare” while CEO of Screen Queensland until August 2019.

 

Screen Queensland argued it would create tourism opportunities (it took an unexpected twist when the Pirates star Johnny Depp's ex-wife Amber Heard was caught not declaring her Yorkshire terriers Boo and Pistol).

Queensland was competing against Louisiana, Puerto Rico and Victoria for the film, Vieira warned.

But just how much taxpayers ended up paying was to remain a closely guarded secret.

This was despite the Federal Government revealing it had contributed $21.6 million.

Mr Newman, however, did offer some numbers. The film project would bring in "about $100 million to Queensland and create thousands of local jobs," he then said.

Boyd wanted to examine exactly how much of a boon the filming really was for the taxpayer dollars.

To his surprise, the response to his RTI application to the Premier's Department was a one-page briefing note in which the incentive sum had been blanked out on confidentiality grounds.

Boyd appealed to the state's freedom of information umpire, the Office of the Information Commissioner.

As a decision loomed, a Government RTI manager gave a worrying internal warning.

"This email is merely to advise that my previous assessment (potential for the matter to wither and die) was incorrect," he wrote.

 

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk with director Baz Luhrmann, whose Elvis biopic is filming in Queensland
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk with director Baz Luhrmann, whose Elvis biopic is filming in Queensland

 

Despite heavy resistance from Screen Queensland, which argued the releasing the figure would put Queensland at a competitive disadvantage to other states vying for the film projects, Boyd resoundingly won round one in 2016.

The Office of the Information Commissioner ordered the Pirates incentive be made public.

"That grant was funded by Queensland taxpayers, and there is a manifest public interest in allowing those taxpayers access to information ...in order that they may scrutinise what government committed on their behalf, and whether doing so represented a sound investment of their monies," the RTI Commissioner explained in her decision.

"It is noted that the Government made public statements detailing the benefits expected to accrue to the state as a consequence of the (Pirates) production.

"The release of the information in issue would allow the public to weigh those publicised benefits against the costs incurred."

But it would never be released. Screen Queensland appealed and overturned the decision in the QCAT.

QCAT deputy president Suzanne Sheridan found releasing the figure would reveal a confidential decision by a state Cabinet committee.

While the Government privately celebrated, though, Boyd says the government efforts to stop the figure being made public only drew attention to the need for more scrutiny of the incentives.

Boyd fielded calls from local and international press, including L.A. Times, which ran a story on the

case.

"The fact that it was hidden created far more media than if it had just been released," he says.

 

 

 

 

Originally published as 'We won!' Celebrations as taxpayers kept in dark



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