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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

No new dawn for openness in Federal Treasury.....yet

Government watchers sat bolt upright last Friday when the Secretary of the Treasury intervened in the public debate about the Federal Government's submission to the Fair Pay Tribunal with a Press Release No. 2 2008 - Advice on the Government Submission to the Australian Fair Pay Commission confirming that Treasury advice to the Government had not stipulated a dollar figure for the minimum wage review. Newspaper reports said that even the actual documents providing advice had been shown to journalists.

Treasury has a well earned reputation for insisting on the need for confidentiality in the provision of advice, and clinging to exemption claims, where documents have been sought under the Freedom of Information Act, even where advice is years old, and much of any sensitivity appears to have passed.

Those who thought Friday's release presaged a new approach in Treasury however won't be reassured by an opinion piece in today's Australian Financial Review "Accountable when it suits" by Tony Harris. (Sorry, the new AFR free content does not extend to opinion pieces). Harris writes about Treasury response last week to Government documents on the consumer price index forecasts for two publications released in October. Nearly all pages of the 13 relevant documents were blanked out. None of the 23 pages of a minute prepared for the Secretary in September was released. And so on ...........

Treasury said release of some documents would undermine the integrity of its relationship with the Reserve Bank and may effect the candour of future communications; the release of others "could lead to less rigorous advice to the government". Harris points out that the Public Service Act requires officers to provide frank and fearless advice. There are also the Administrative Appeals Tribunal reject these type of arguments in the absence of evidence to support such broad and general assertions, and confirming that disclosure of documents may be in the public interest where this facilitates public debate on matters of public importance.

The Treasury FOI response sounds like more of the same old, same old, to me.

Harris says the media release on the Fair Pay submission shows that Treasury will reveal its advice to the Treasurer when this suits Treasury or the government's convenience. However FOI legislation, and its spirit and intent are meant to establish clearer disclosure requirements that apply in all circumstances.

Perhaps the Special Minister of State and the Treasurer need publicly remind the public service that we have a new government with a different perspective on openness and transparency.


  1. Anonymous10:59 am

    ... we have a new government with a different perspective on openness and transparency.

    LOL - workaholic control-freak personalities like Rudd have strong natural instincts towards "managing" information flows. This government is at least as "security" obsessed as the last one, and so far less cynical about using it for short-term political ends (ie fewer favourable leaks).

    IME political parties are only sympathetic towards FOI and the like when they're in opposition - more's the pity.

  2. I'm still hanging in there with some confidence that the new government will act on its election commitment in this field, as in others. But time is passing - 4 months this week since the election - and nothing publicly to show the public service that a new approach is required. P.