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Govt keeping hospital costings under wraps - despite order to release them

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The Marshall Government is yet to release documents relating to the proposed cost of the planned new Women’s and Children’s Hospital, despite being instructed to do so by the state Ombudsman – who says the Government has ignored his advice on how to strengthen Freedom of Information laws.

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Health Minister Stephen Wade has refused to release to the Opposition documents he says are exempt from Freedom of Information laws, including minutes of an April 2019 briefing on the capital costs of the proposed Women’s and Children’s Hospital build and an email consultation on the cost of the project.

In a determination published on his website this week – but handed down three weeks ago – Ombudsman Wayne Lines overturned SA Health’s determination to keep the documents secret, in the process criticising the agency’s handling of the matter throughout.

“It is my view that the agency has fallen far short of its requirements under the FOI Act,” Lines wrote.

“The agency failed to make a determination or internal review determination within the legislated timeframes.

“Additionally, the applicant agreed to an informal extension of time for an internal review determination to be issued, however the agency also failed to meet this deadline.”

However, Labor’s health spokesman Chris Picton says SA Health is still yet to release the documents – a recurring trend in recent months with the department failing to comply with Ombudsman’s determinations.

“Stephen Wade should immediately act following this adverse ruling from the Ombudsman and release the documents about the cost of the new Women’s and Children’s Hospital,” Picton told InDaily.

“The public has a right to know what the full cost of the new hospital is following their handpicked Taskforce which investigated it following their election commitment.

“It is completely unprecedented to start a project like this without announcing what the price tag is.”

He noted that the Taskforce report, completed 18 months ago, had also been kept secret despite FoI requests.

Taskforce chair Jim Birch told InDaily the report was handed to the Government early last year and its primary purpose was to establish the viability of a site adjacent the new Royal Adelaide.

He said the report included “a reasonable idea of what the [cost] range would be”, but said “you’d have to ask the department or minister” why it was yet to be released.

Lines has previously expressed concern about government agencies failing to comply with his rulings, with Health the primary offender.

“It’s a problem in the legislation, I think,” he told InDaily today.

“Primarily that there’s no obligation on agencies to comply with my determinations, or their own for that matter… you’d expect that they would, and that’s the convention – but there’s no legal obligation.”

While the Government has introduced a Bill to reform the Freedom of Information Act, Lines said it ignored a number of requests from him to improve its operation.

“It doesn’t take up my request that there be a [legal] obligation,” he said, noting that he suggested the amendment “on more than one occasion”.

“I put forward a proposal for amendment two years ago, then had the opportunity to comment on [the draft Bill]… there were a number of things I asked for which the Government in its wisdom decided not to follow through on.”

He said this included the establishment of a local ‘Information Commissioner’, which exists in other jurisdictions.

“I think there needs to be a body set up to have oversight of the whole system – in eastern states, they have Information Commissioners [who] have the ability to set standards and do audits on compliance with those standards,” he said.

“They have a bit of a regulatory role, as well as doing external reviews – I think that’s lacking in this state.

“I did recommend to Government it consider establishing an Information Commissioner, to have specific oversight of the whole regime – but they decided not to take that up.”

He said “a problem with a large organisation like Health” was that “they have the most FoI requests of all government agencies [and] they probably lose track of all the determinations that have been made”.

“They really need to get themselves organised to have a system of keeping a track of when determinations have been made and when the appeal periods have expired,” he said.

InDaily has contacted health Minister Stephen Wade and Attorney-General Vickie Chapman for comment.

The Government originally pledged the new hospital would be delivered by 2024, however the timeframe has blown out of late, with a business plan not expected to be completed until the middle of next year.

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