RBA & Treasury still head in sand over real estate holdings: 100 Days

You have probably  seen the news that Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) Governor Philip Lowe and Deputy Governor Guy Debelle for the first time released “voluntary” declarations of their personal real estate holdings.

The tl;dr version is that the declarations were not voluntary as it was advertised by the RBA as a proof of their “openness and accountability”. It was done in response to (and to deliberately circumvent, in a botched face-saving operation) our Freedom of Information request, and you can read the full backgrounder here: why RBA hides board members property ownership.

However, this may not be important. What is important is we had requested declarations not just about the governor and deputy governor, but also about the other 7 members of the the Reserve Bank Board whose decisions directly and indirectly affect a range of market, retail and institutional interest rates, including home loans and property prices.

In violation of the FOI Act and their public accountability, both Australian Treasury and the RBA (their FOI and media offices) continue to keep their heads in the sand. Our repeated and good-faith requests have not been answered yet. No explanation has been provided.

The need for such a request came when back in April we made public the Australian politician’s  property ownership ranking based on the Parliament’s registers of interests that cover residential and investment properties.

This raised the question just how willing some federal politicians, who are keen property investors  themselves, are to address the current housing affordability crisis.

And it became clear that the RBA had never disclosed to public about the real estate holdings of its board members despite their direct participation and pre-knowledge of monetary policies controlling asset prices.

On April 15, we filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) (FOI 2925/RBAFOI-202133) request with the RBA to obtain “information about … the real estate ownership by members of the Reserve Bank Board, including the Governor and Deputy Governor”.

Our FOI request also included hyperlinks to the federal parliament’s registers of interests to make our request not too frightening and unusual given the RBA had never released such information to the public. This was also a deliberate hint at the lack of transparency and accountability the RBA had enjoyed for years.

On April 16, the RBA’s FOI Officer replied acknowledging the receipt of the request and the Bank’s commitment to provide the answer “within 30 days of the commencement of processing” and “advise that processing of it commences today, 16 April 2021”.

Meanwhile, we soon understood that fuming and outraged over our FOI request and its potential to reveal the RBA’s lack of openness, top brass at Australia’s central bank had scrambled to save face.

Up all night working, the RBA apparently  drafted a declaration template based on Parliament’s registers of interests we had referenced in our request, and two copies, one for each, were signed personally by Governor Philip William Lowe and Deputy Governor Guy Debelle on April 30. Remember this date – April 30.

Here you go, for the next couple of days, Philip Lowe would be praised by the unsuspecting media for “the RBA this week published for the first time the financial disclosures of Dr Lowe and his deputy, Guy Debelle, in an effort to boost transparency and public accountability”.

“These declarations are made voluntarily to promote openness and accountability”misleadingly says the RBA’s website which you can see in the screenshot here.

On the same day – Friday April 30 just after Dr Lowe blew on his signature to dry the ink, we received an email from the RBA’s FOI Officer Phil Lomas as below:

“I write to advise that your request (detailed below) has been transferred to the Treasury for processing in terms of section 16 of the FOI Act. This is because the Reserve Bank of Australia does not have the documents you seek (Board Members declarations are made to the Treasurer and not the Reserve Bank).

It appears by splitting into gradual or partial releases (first, governor and deputy, then others), the RBA simply aims to make the information both irrelevant and less significant by the time all released. In addition, this would obviously disadvantage and penalize the information seeking party by preempting the publication of any investigative work. Smart enough.

Since then, in response to our frequent followup emails in May and June, the Dear FOI Officer continued to maintain that “the Treasurer’s Office… …they said they will contact you soon regarding your request”.

Finally on July 2 just before we were ready to celebrate the 90 days mark since the request filing, we received an email from an unnamed “Freedom of Information Officer The Treasury”, referring to the aforementioned “voluntary declarations” to say “as these documents are publicly available a formal FOI request is not required”…

Well, as if it wasn’t enough to run a cheap political campaign to mislead the public with “voluntary” and “routine” declarations,  where are the other board members’ declarations?  Yes, that is what we asked in early July. It appears both the RBA and Treasury have since been exercising their right to silence.

It is simply strange  why the RBA and Treasurer’s Office are going to all the hassle of hiding the declarations of 7 other board members without any explanation, even though they are aware that this might be in contravention of the FOI Act.

100 Days

The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) provides a general right of access to information held by the government and other Commonwealth agencies.

The standard timeframe to process an FOI request is 30 days, and agencies must comply with the statutory timeframes for processing FOI requests.

The FOI Act contains a number of extension of time provisions which require informing the applicant that they need more time to process it. This can be another 30 days or a specified timeframe.

We have not been informed of any extension needed in the past 100 days.

We have also in writing requested an internal investigation and received no response.

Not being able to extract information from government entities which talk about transparency and accountability is as tragicomic as the fact that the world’s most sparsely populated nation has the most expensive housing and land on the planet.  

On the positive side, we are still optimistic that other board members will at least make “voluntary” declarations soon. At the end of the day, they don’t have anything to hide, do they?