Apology on water spying

Tues 30/08/2011 Kath Gannaway, Mountain Views Mail

ANTI-PIPELINE campaigner Jan Beer said last week she had been vindicated over claims Melbourne Water spied on her as she campaigned against the North-South (Sugarloaf) Pipeline project.

A 12-month legal battle through the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) ended on Tuesday 23 August, when Melbourne Water agreed to make a public apology to Mrs Beer, which includes publishing the written apology on its website and in two regional newspapers.

Mrs Beer launched an invasion of privacy case against Melbourne Water in VCAT in September last year after 88 documents obtained under freedom of information laws revealed she had been photographed and her activities monitored and documented for two years.

In November last year Melbourne Water moved to have the case dismissed but that application was rejected and Mrs Beer persevered saying she believed Melbourne Water's actions amounted to treating her, and others, as common criminals.

“In one instance I was being trailed up the Melba Highway in my car and it (the documents) stated another person was with me.

“On another it stated my husband was with me and it named him and the make, model and number plate of the car,” she said.

She said one report was made when she was addressing university students at Yea, nowhere near the pipeline.

“My aim was for Melbourne Water to acknowledge that they can't behave in this manner, collecting and collating large amounts of personal information on normal, everyday citizens who have no criminal history,” she said.

“My main beef was with Melbourne Water saying that under the privacy act they did nothing wrong.

“We have been proven right.”

The web site apology will run until December and the newspaper apology will appear in mid-September.

Melbourne Water, however, in a statement released on 25 August, continued to maintain its actions were reasonable and “lawful and appropriate in the circumstances”.

“Having said this we acknowledge there is room for improvement in the way some processes were carried out.

“On this basis, Melbourne Water agreed to issue a written apology to Mrs Beer,” the statement said.

It said Melbourne Water collected information about potential disruption of the pipeline works in order to ensure the safety and security of its workers.

Mrs Beer said she was grateful to The Environmental Defenders Office which took on her case on a pro-bono basis.

EDO solicitor Elizabeth McKinnon said while the apology does not set a binding precedent she hoped it would make a difference.

“The EDO took on the case because we thought it was an important case for the rights of people, like Jan, who seek to protect the environment and that the practice was evolving as normal in government departments in the management and roll-out of large infrastructure projects,” Ms McKinnon said.

“In terms of agencies who undertake this sort of surveillance and monitoring, I would think it might make them think twice about conducting themselves in that way,” she said.