Police deal crucial to desal go-ahead
by Paul Austin, The Age below & here
October 12, 2010CONSTRUCTION of Victoria's $5.7 billion desalination plant was in jeopardy until the state government struck a controversial deal under which police agreed to make available secret files on anti-desalination protesters to the private consortium building the plant.
Government documents obtained by The Age reveal the international consortium AquaSure feared ''civil disruption'' could prevent it delivering the project on time, and indicated it needed reassurance about police help before agreeing to take on the project.
They show the consortium signed the desalination contract - including a pledge to have it finished by the end of 2011 - only after the government put in writing a clause stating that Victoria Police would hand over photos, video recordings and other police records to AquaSure to help it ''manage'' protests and other potential security threats.
Since The Age last year revealed the contents of that memorandum of understanding - which states that police ''will release law enforcement data'' to AquaSure - Victoria Police and the government have said it was normal practice for such deals to be struck for contentious major protects.
The documents, obtained under freedom-of-information laws, show the desalination deal was drafted by the Victorian government Solicitor's Office at the request of the government after negotiations with the consortium on how to tackle the risk of protest action delaying construction.
The 20-page memorandum, signed by the government, Victoria Police and AquaSure, said the force ''will release law enforcement data'' to the private firm. It said such data might take the form of ''any text, images, audio and video'' and could include ''data related to individuals, aggregated data, written reports and correspondence, memoranda, police diaries, official notebooks, running sheets and other data repositories''.
Police Chief Commissioner Simon Overland vowed last month never again to strike such agreements with private companies, after Victoria's police files watchdog condemned the desalination deal, saying it did not properly comply with privacy and human rights laws.
The Commissioner for Law Enforcement and Data Security, David Watts, told Parliament on September 23 that confusing internal policies had resulted in police striking ''inappropriate'' deals on the use of personal files. In a scathing 62-page report, the watchdog said he had found no evidence police had in fact given AquaSure sensitive personal information.
But he said the desalination agreement ''did not adequately take account of Victoria's human rights, information privacy and law enforcement data security laws and did not establish the mechanisms necessary to support compliance with them''.
The Age has now obtained under FOI more than 100 pages of government papers sent to the police files watchdog as part of his probe. They include a two-page document, prepared by the Department of Sustainability and Environment, headed ''Chronology of the background to entering into the Memorandum of Understanding''.
The chronology says that in December 2008 the private bidders for the desalination plant ''indicated unwillingness to take on the risk of delivering the project on time if it was delayed due to civil disruption''.
Noting the bidders were concerned about protests during preliminary works at the desalination site near Wonthaggi and during construction of the controversial north-south water pipeline, the document says: ''Further engagement in the bidding process suggested that the risk of delivery of the [desalination] project may be able to be transferred to bidders if the level of Victoria Police and state assistance to mitigate civil disruption was documented.''
It says department officials met senior police on March 11 last year, and the possibility of a deal involving the government, police and AquaSure was discussed. There was a further meeting at police headquarters on March 27, involving the government Solicitor's Office.
On April 22 the department requested in writing that the Solicitor's Office draft a memorandum. Senior police met officials from the office on May 4. It provided a draft agreement on July 2 and the deal was signed on August 28 last year.
The desalination plant is the key element of the government's multibillion-dollar plan to ''drought proof'' Victoria.
Government spokesman Luke Enright last night said there was never any doubt the project would go ahead.
''Any bidder on a controversial project of this scale would be keen to know how potential protest activity is going to be managed,'' he said. ''The desalination agreement was drawn up based upon agreements that Victoria Police have had in place with other organisations for a long time.''