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Water body censors spending figures, citing 'stress or anxiety'

Date

Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie

Water Minister Peter Walsh.

Water Minister Peter Walsh. Photo: Leanne Pickett

Victoria's water agency is suppressing documents detailing how managers have spent millions of taxpayer funds, saying disclosure could cause ''stress or anxiety''.

The Office of Living Victoria - staffed by former Coalition advisers and under investigation by the Ombudsman for its controversial procurement practices - has ruled that all email correspondence between its senior officers, Water Minister Peter Walsh's office and two government departments about budgetary matters cannot be released.

The OLV refused freedom-of-information applications from Fairfax Media, saying it was not in the public interest to release emails written by senior staff because this could ''cause a person stress or anxiety'' and the ''individuals involved would not wish to have their information disclosed without their consent''.

Victorians have paid millions of dollars to staff the OLV with political appointments and several well-connected consultants. Most got their jobs without competition.

Last week, the Auditor-General revealed how $22.5 million from an environmental collection levy Victorians pay on their water bills has been used to bankroll the OLV.

The Auditor-General said there was no documented rationale for directing the funds to the OLV, making this ''inconsistent with the original purposes of the fund''.

Those employed without competition include OLV head of office, Simon Want, a former Howard government adviser, and chief scientist Peter Coombes. Mr Want and Dr Coombes were contracted by Mr Walsh to draft the Victorian Coalition's water policies.

OLV executive officer Brylie Coulson said the blocked emails contained ''discussion of hypothetical situations based on estimates or assumptions that may or may not have come to fruition''.

The FOI request sought emails sent by OLV chief Mike Waller, Mr Want, Dr Coombes and its then senior manager, former Nationals adviser James Lantry, to Mr Walsh, his office, Treasury and the Department of Environment and Primary industries last year.

The OLV funnelled millions from a community fund to top up a budget depleted by spending on consultants and office renovations.

Fairfax Media has revealed how OLV staff were told to change allocations in the agency's financial records system in the hope of getting more money from the government.

Opposition water spokesman Martin Foley said the government was ''going to extraordinary lengths'' to keep the OLV ''gravy train'' hidden from the public.

Know more?

rbaker@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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