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Friday, October 31, 2008

Where's the enthusiasm in Canberra for ending excessive secrecy?

Sometime soon (he says confidently) Senator John Faulkner's speech on the Government's transparency and accountability agenda at last night's Transparency International gathering in Sydney will appear on his website. It's not been posted so far (update- it has now and its a good and comprehensive speech of impressive achievements in many areas) but the only new news according to those who were there was an announcement of the publication of an annual report on ministerial staff employed by federal ministers- how many,what they cost etc.

There was nothing else new, reported at least: just a repeat of the commitment in principle we have heard often over the last 18 months:
"Transparency ensures appropriate visibility to government actions and the political process," Senator Faulkner said. "I've personally taken the view, after many years in both politics and parliament, that there's no better way to achieve integrity and accountability within government and government transactions than by promoting transparency and openness. "Australians must be able to know how their government works and have confidence that authority is exercised appropriately."
I'm sure Senator Faulkner is genuine, but given this sentiment, it's difficult to explain why we haven't to date seen a scrap of change or even a sense of urgency for reform in the FOI field.(Update-this year is again mentioned as the timetable for legislation to abolish conclusive certificates.) Or, apart from the occasional Faulkner speech, anything to progress the much talked about culture change to shift government away from its widely acknowledged preference for secrecy.

On the contrary enthusiasm for practical steps towards governing differently may be dimming in even higher circles, after almost a year of up-close and personal dealings with the public service and complex policy problems.

As John Roskam (of the Institute of Public Affaairs) in an opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review today notes:
"In a speech in Melbourne on Tuesday night, the Prime Minister spoke about the importance of maintaining business and public confidence during these ‘‘unprecedented times''. He went on to say: ‘‘It is incumbent upon all of us in political leadership to be very careful about what we say. Now is not the time to be questioning the head of the commonwealth Treasury. Now is not the time to be attacking the head of the Reserve Bank.''
The PM is right about personal attacks. But no questioning? Isn't that the scrutiny necessary for the transparency and accountability we have a right to expect?

Roskam seems to be reading the PM's remarks in the same way I read some signs from Treasury Secretary Ken Henry last week: these things are best sorted behind closed doors, what we say or consider there has to remain confidential, any questioning of our wisdom may have grave repercussions.Roskam continues:
"The cause of good governance in these ‘‘unprecedented times'' is best served by having more debate, not less.....The Prime Minister has two reasons why he thinks Australians should just sit down and shut up while he makes financial policy on the run. First, he says we must get economic policies ‘‘right'' and this is a process best undertaken without having an argument about them. Second, he argues that the lesson of the bank deposit guarantee saga is that ‘‘politicising'' such issues is ‘‘unhelpful in the markets''. The reply is simple. Making policy in the glare of public scrutiny doesn't guarantee that the policy will be right, but there's a greater chance of it being right compared to having the policy made in secret."
This isn't the time for the PM to be backing off his National Press Club commitment a year ago:"I'll end secrecy"

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