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Monday, October 20, 2008

New leadership but reminders of old tactics on open government

A Prime Minister who manages a 10% increase in his popularity rating to 71% is obviously travelling well- in "about to be shocking economic times", the government has more public support than when elected 11 months ago.

But as the opposition and some media commentators have noted, the government's reticence to provide information about the advice or forecasts that underpinned decisions to guarantee deposits in financial institutions and bank borrowing from abroad, and to deliver a fiscal stimulus package involving $10.4 billion in taxpayers money, is a far cry from all the claims that this government would be different when it came to open government.In fact it's a bit like the "if only you knew what I knew you would surely agree" line used frequently throughout history, but three examples come to mind: by former Immigration Minister Andrews last year to justify cancelling Dr Haneef's visa, aspects of the case for war in Iraq presented to us in 2003, and by President Johnson way back in 1964 to get the US Congress to authorise the commitment of ground forces to Vietnam after what turned out to be a false claim of an attack on US vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Surely something more was on the table for consideration than the IMF prediction of zero growth for developed economies. Disclosure of our government experts' assessments whatever they were would assist public debate on an issue the PM has labelled the equivalent of a national security crisis.

And for someone who told us he was serious about doing something about the role of Parliament the PM also seems to prefer audiences other than Parliament to announce these major policy changes.

The PM's party in opposition in January last year made much of the fact that John Howard's $10 billion rescue package for the Murray River had not gone to Cabinet, and seemed to have been worked up on the back of an envelope. The boot would appear to be on the other foot now. Maybe the urgency of the present situation justified decisions based on skimpy research, limited cost- benefit analysis, and forecasts that were out of date almost immediately.But sharing the realities with us rather than stony face assurances all will be revealed in a month's time would be in accordance with the standard of transparency which the PM led us to expect.

The scene this week shifts to Senate Estimates. Given the tone set by the PM and Treasurer to date, for Federal Treasury public servants it's likely to be battle-stations with instructions not to give an inch. No doubt there are some potential Freedom of Information applicants out there sharpening the pencil.

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