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Monday, February 11, 2008

No place for improved transparency in Shergold reflections

Dr. Peter Shergold, the retiring head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, has been a dedicated and able public servant, and his reflections on 20 years of service in his valedictory speech last Friday make interesting reading for anyone interested in government affairs.

But we particularly liked this letter "A civil servants duty is to serve the public as well as the master" published today from Gordon Pears, who takes Shergold to task over his assertion that the duty of the public servant is simply to serve the minister of the day.

Pears says that too many senior public servants knowingly served John Howard in pursuit of his overriding priority - to remain in power as long as possible and at any cost. When this was on the agenda, truth and other priorities did not get a look in.

"What can we do about the unhealthy relationship that has built up between the public service and the elected government? The most important single answer is transparency. This must be achieved in two ways: first Parliament, like the United States Congress, must have the power - and the will - to question any public servant on any aspect of his public duties at any time.

Second, freedom of information acts must mean exactly what their titles claim, as they do in the better democracies. Only in the most exceptional circumstances should anyone have the power to deny information on the grounds that it is not in the public interest.

Ninety-nine times out of 100 this means "not in the interests of the minister and/or department".

In a fine piece of bureaucratic prose, Dr Shergold refers to "the point at which frank and fearless advice, given in confidence, appropriately concedes to the will of elected government". Why should the advice of a public servant be any less frank and fearless because it might see the light of day?

Kevin Rudd has committed himself to greater transparency. He will meet enormous resistance. We, the people, must give him our full support".

Dead right.

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