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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Nifty Nev not into FOI

There has been some publicity this week about a new book “The Wran Era” edited by Troy Bramston about the 10 year NSW Labor Government between 1976 and 1986 led by Neville Wran.

I haven’t read the book but while the Wran Government achieved much and Wran was a highly successful leader, the period won’t be remembered for progress on transparency in government.

Wran introduced many far reaching, positive governmental changes based on reports in 1977 (Directions for Change) and 1982 (Unfinished Agenda) on the state of the NSW public service by the late Professor Peter Wilenski.

Both reports recommended freedom of information legislation - the 1982 report concluded that the NSW Government was a “bastion of secrecy”, an issue that could only be addressed by legislation.

The Government introduced an FOI Bill into Parliament in 1983 but it lapsed and reform languished until the election of the Liberal Greiner Government in 1988.

Wran had obviously decided the issue wasn’t a high priority and he certainly would have encountered strong opposition from the senior ranks of the public service at the time. Some stories suggest that the Bill went into the bottom drawer of the then Secretary of the Premier’s Department, Gerry Gleeson, never to emerge. Perhaps the briefing note to the Premier was something along the lines of the advice to the minister on this topic in the BBC “Yes Minister” series: “Minister, you can have openness or government but you can’t have both”.

I can personally recall the reaction of some senior NSW public servants in 1988 after the Greiner Government was elected and following its announcement that it would proceed with FOI legislation. After I was engaged prior to the passage of the legislation to assist the Premier’s Department with implementation, a senior officer in another department summed up the prevailing attitude for me: “Don’t waste your time mate, it’ll never happen here”. He then produced a file of ageing newspaper clippings to confirm his belief that politicians promises of open government had always faltered at the last hurdle.

As they say, the rest is history.

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