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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Leaders urged to let us know, citizens urged to speak up

The speech by former High Court chief justice Sir Anthony Mason in presenting the Accountability Roundtable awards for Integrity was a depressing summary of the state of our democratic institutions, and citizen disengagement from the process.  You won't be thrilled to learn that "In all probability democracies can survive the indifference, even the cynicism of their peoples, though it would be a mistake to take this proposition for granted" (emphasis added). He continued:
Whether this be so or not, this indifference itself reinforces the existing political culture. If electors were more engaged with the political process, our representatives would be less inclined to take the electorate for granted or to think that public opinion was a matter to be managed by of advertising campaigns and public relations strategies. Unfortunately the price we pay for disengaging from the political process and not expressing our views is not so much that our representatives don’t listen to us but we offer nothing for them to listen to.

On openness and transparency Sir Anthony said:
Although our governments pay lip-service to the ideals of open and accountable government, including freedom of information, the reality is different. There have been, at both federal and state levels, instances of the suppression of, or failure to publish, adverse reports or material which the public has an interest in knowing. Whistleblowers have been prosecuted for disclosing information the publication of which was in the public interest but politically detrimental to the government of the day..

What, one might ask, has happened to the old democratic idea that a controversial public measure should be open to public scrutiny and debate before it is adopted? Sometimes that idea is acted upon, but at other times controversial measures are decided upon and enacted without adequate opportunity for public consideration. All too often governments are anxious to avoid public debate because it may lead to controversy. Instead they prefer to manage public opinion by advertising and public relations campaigns.

The effect of these techniques is either to stifle or manage, rather than promote public debate. Opinion polls and “talk back” programs enable politicians to say that they listen to and take account of the public’s views. But it is very much an exercise in the strategy of managing public opinion....

The popular image of the political process would be enhanced if the ideals of openness and accountability were pursued, if relevant information was made available in timely fashion to the public and if our representatives gave us the bad news as well as the good news. People would react favourably if they felt that they could rely on the accuracy of political statements. Unreliability of statements by politicians and “cover-ups” lead to lack of trust and confidence in the political process. Sometimes these statements are made carelessly for opportunistic reasons. But on other occasions the unreliability of the statements is exaggerated and then exploited by other politicians and the media for their own ends. Statements of intention are frequently elevated into “promises” even if they are obviously conditional on no change in relevant circumstances taking place.
Mason Speech- 15 June 2010 Final Web version.pdf

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