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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

More transparency for the private sector should be on the cards, not just for trade unions

In the light of what members of the HSU didn't know the Federal Government plans to force  trade unions to be more open:
The Government has announced that it will take action to enhance the accountability and transparency of registered organisations and to strengthen penalties, and improve Fair Work Australia’s investigation processes following the conclusion of the Fair Work Australia investigation into the National Office of the Health Services Union.
Good stuff, but a broader issue concerning the adequacy of transparency obligations of private sector bodies generally cries out for attention as well.

As Johan Lidberg of Monash University concludes his piece on freedom of information in the 2012 MEAA Press Freedom report (pdf) (p 29):
However 2011 saw no movement at all in the most challenging areas of independent information access – corporate information. This is noteworthy as actions of big corporations arguably have as much influence (at times more) over our daily lives, as do governments. Access to corporate information remains the final frontier in the information access battle .
Elsewhere, almost on cue, George Monbiot writing in The Guardian yesterday tried to fire this up in the UK, reflecting on News International's previously tightly held secrets:
In this column I will make a proposal that sounds – at first – monstrous, but I hope to persuade you is both reasonable and necessary: that freedom of information laws should be extended to the private sector.....
The purpose of this monstrous proposal is not just to shine a light into the rattling cupboards of private companies, but to change the way in which they behave. A body that acts as if the world is watching presents less of a threat to the public interest than a body that knows it won't get caught. Would News International have acted as it did if its emails could have been revealed as a matter of course rather than a matter of chance? If it is true that "governments don't rule the world, Goldman Sachs rules the world", should we not be entitled to know what Goldman Sachs is up to? Is that not the only means we have of preventing its unelected power from becoming tyrannical?
It's not that monstrous. Readers might recall that a gutsy minister of our own raised the issue of FOI for the private sector in 2009.

In a post last June (and this earlier post in January 2011) I gave a rundown on Senator Faulkner's attempt to give the issue oxygen through an ALRC reference when he was Special Minister of State. The publicly announced cabinet decision to take that step came to nothing once Faulkner went to Defence that year. Then Attorney General McClelland showed no interest, and the public service in advising on ALRC references, said "move on."

No one in government or the opposition has said a public word on the topic since. 

Examination of transparency standards and how disclosure of information held by the private sector could enhance public knowledge and debate on issues of importance to the community should be on someone's agenda, given:
  • the power corporations exercise over the every day life of most of us,
  • the privatisation of functions previously in the hands of government but now carried out by the private sector,
  • the emergence of new private sector services that resemble public utilities in their scope and importance,
  • the adequacy/inadequacy of available information about private sector environmental impacts, or public health and community safety issues,
  • sectoral issues concerning, for example, disclosure by financial institutions that governments effectively guaranteed as a result of the GFC, and other corporates that might be in the "too big to fail "category.
 Any takers? Not holding my breath.

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