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Monday, February 19, 2007

Spin and the public right to know

An address in early February by the Secretary of the Federal Treasury, Ken Henry, titled "Political Awareness", received some publicity at the time, and is the subject today of an opinion piece "Only mushrooms grow in the dark" in the Australian Financial Review by Economics Editor Allan Mitchell - no link available.

Henry's speech, to an international project managers symposium in Canberra, was about the challenge for the public service in advising ministers, who in the modern world and its 24 hour news cycle, have a low appetite for risk. He offers some useful suggestions including the need for politicians to understand the importance of conditioning public expectations during the development of policy and final decision making.

Allan Mitchell picks up on this point today to suggest that while "conditioning expectations sounds need not be. In fact it need only involve taking the public more into the Government's confidence". Mitchell says that there are many ways of engaging and educating the public. Yet "the preference is that as much as possible should be done "not in front of the children", as Richard Crossman, the British minister and diarist put it".

Mitchell concludes:
"Secrecy is seen by ministers as the easiest answer to the problems of risk and asymmetrical rewards. But secrecy also facilitates undesirable behaviour, erodes the public's trust and makes it harder for ministers to defend good decisions when they go wrong".
Henry made no mention in his address of the Treasury's vigorous efforts, culminating in a successful High Court decision last year in the McKinnon case, to refuse access to documents four years after they had formed part of the decision making process, on public interest grounds including that disclosure would jeopardise candor and effect keeping of proper records.

"Managing expectations" by promoting public discussion of issues prior to decision making is a good thing. So is acceptance of the principle of accountability and the public's right to know, as expressed in our Freedom of Information laws, about the basis for decisions taken in its name.

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