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Friday analysis: recovering $2M of taxpayer money is definitely in the public interest

Minister Thomas

Ever tried to skip paying a bill from a state government agency?

Didn’t think so.

Odder still, ever had a state government say don’t worry about paying that bill?

Obviously not.

So why then can the Victorian State Government simply decide that a $2m debt is not worth recovering because it is “not in the best interests of the Victorian Government”.

For months former Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas repeatedly blocked requests for copies of a letter she wrote to VicForests in February directing its board to back off taking legal action to recover a $2 million debt from an environmental group.

At the time Ms Thomas said, “no direction” was given to Vic Forests by the Victorian Government”. Yet the Minister and the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions rejected Freedom of Information requests for copies of the letter, stating its release was “contrary to the public interest”.

But when Victorian Nationals leader Peter Walsh lodged an appeal with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal the government finally caved in, releasing a copy of the letter.

In the letter to then VicForests chairman Chris Lovell, Ms Thomas states recovering the court-ordered costs against the group was “not in the best interests of the Victorian Government”.

Mr Walsh quite rightly points to what he describes as the government’s irresponsibility with Victorian taxpayers’ money.

“Labor has put its own interests ahead of the Victorian taxpayer in a letter that contains false advice not to pursue the debt based on the government’s own guidelines,” he said.

“It’s behaviour symptomatic of the government and how they treat transparency.”

Ms Thomas says not releasing the information was “contrary to the public interest”; Mr Walsh argues refusing to recover $2 million of taxpayers’ money is definitely in the public interest.

So, next time a licence or registration renewal notice arrives in the post you could perhaps mount a similar challenge not to pay.

But it’s unlikely you would succeed.