Experts say $5bn Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility’s repeated rejection of requests for information on Adani coal project loan has no basis in law

Resources minister Matthew Canavan (2nd from right) with board members at launch of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility in August 2016 (Photo: Dept of Industry)

An Australian government fund has been accused of an unsanctioned obsession with secrecy after refusing multiple Freedom of Information (FOI) requests about a proposed giant coal mine.

Climate Home can reveal at least six FOI requests about the project have been lodged with the Northern Australian Infrastructure Facility (NAIF), which is considering a AU$900 million ($678m) loan to Adani to build a rail line to support its Carmichael coal mine.

The NAIF was launched in mid-2016 as an independent government entity with AU$5bn ($3.8bn) of taxpayer money available as loans to projects to boost the economy in the north of Australia.

Two senior Australian law academics specialising in FOI law have criticised the NAIF’s handling of the FOI requests.

Associate professor Rick Snell, deputy dean of the University of Tasmania law school, told Climate Home: “What you have got here is a public organisation that’s got an excessive obsession about secrecy that’s not supported by the FOI Act.”

Snell said the FOI Act, which is designed to allow the public to scrutinise the functions of the government, enabled some organisations to request a blanket exemption from the act itself, but the NAIF had not done this.

“This is an entity that has not been exempted from the FOI Act in any way, which the parliament has not empowered in any way to have any greater degree of confidentiality than any other on the public books.

“Yet it has effectively tried to position itself as being the most secret organisation, equivalent to something like Asio [Australia’s national intelligence organisation] – Asio has been exempted from the FOI Act, but the NAIF has not,” said Snell.

He added he had “never come across a government agency” that had such an approach to secrecy.

A NAIF spokesperson told Climate Home it was responding to all FOI requests in accordance with the law. In total, nine FOI requests had been received in connection with the Adani project.

In a statement, resource minister Matthew Canavan said he was “confident in the independent process to allow the NAIF to assess and respond to FOI requests as required under the legislation.”

Climate Home, one of the organisations to have an application refused, used the FOI Act to request documents that would constitute an application to the NAIF from Adani.

India-based Adani, which wants to mine 60m tonnes of coal a year from its Carmichael mine in Queensland, has a complex corporate structure with ownerships of some entities routed through a company registered in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven.

Climate Home wanted to know which specific Adani entity had applied to the NAIF.

But an eight-page “statement of reasons” letter sent to Climate Home, signed by NAIF chief of staff Carol Belletinni, said: “NAIF would only have documents relevant to your request if Adani had applied for financial assistance from NAIF.

“To confirm that fact (if it were a fact) would reveal information communicated in confidence and make this statement of reasons letter itself a document the disclosure of which would found an action in breach of confidence.”

The NAIF held this position despite both Canavan and Adani representatives discussing publicly since late 2016 that the fund was considering an application from Adani.

The NAIF spokesperson later told Climate Home that disclosing the name of a loan applicant before an…