Request for report on conservation values of West Coast forests
Request for report on conservation values of West Coast forests managed by Timberlands West Coast Ltd—request refused—factual information released—balance struck between public interest in withholding advice to Minister and countervailing public interest in public being adequately informed of issues
A conservation group requested a report prepared on the conservation values of the West Coast forests managed by Timberlands West Coast Limited from the Department of Conservation. The request was refused by the Department in reliance upon sections 9(2)(g)(i), 9(2)(i) and 9(2)(j), but it became clear that the Department’s concerns related to considerations raised by section 9(2)(f)(iv) of the OIA.
The Government had been considering a number of issues with regard to the future of the West Coast Accord and the logging of indigenous forests managed by Timberlands West Coast, including issues relating to the future of the Buller overcut. At the time the request was considered by the Department, the decision making process in relation to those issues was still continuing. The Department was of the view that the release of the information at issue, and any public debate resulting from the release of that information, would be likely to prejudice undisturbed ministerial consideration of the advice which had been tendered.
Much of the information at issue was factual, describing the nature and methodology of the assessment undertaken by the Department and descriptions of the forest areas studied. There appeared to be no good reason to withhold this information in terms of section 9(2)(f)(iv), nor did there appear to be any other reason in terms of the Act for withholding the information. On the contrary, informed debate could in fact enhance the process of policy development and decision making, and the public policy objectives of the Act could be advanced if factual information was made available so that any subsequent public debate was properly focused.
The balance of the information consisted of advice presented by the Department regarding the assessment made of the conservation values of each forestry area, and it was accepted that the public interest consideration identified in section 9(2)(f)(iv) applied to this information.
Consideration then had to be given in terms of section 9(1) of the OIA to whether the reason for withholding the information was outweighed by other considerations which rendered it desirable in the public interest to make the information available. There was an identifiable public interest in sufficient information being made available to ensure that the public was adequately informed about the issues involved in any consideration of the future of indigenous forestry on the West Coast so views on the matter could be made known to the Government. On the other hand, release of the entire report would have been likely to result in pressure being brought to bear thereby prejudicing the Government’s ability to consider the advice in an effective and orderly manner.
A distinction was drawn between factual information and tendered advice. The factual information was released. The remainder of the information in the report was withheld on the basis that it was necessary to do so to avoid prejudice to the orderly process of government and that interest was not outweighed by any other public interest considerations.
This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.