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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Who carries the flag, advancing and protecting information access rights?

Dr Cassandra Goldie of  the Australian Council of Social Service on Q&A on Monday said Australia has 600,000 civil society organisations out there doing all manner of great things. I'm sure that's true if she says so, and that we are all better for it even if the very term "civil society" still doesn't roll off the tongue easily in these parts.

But you are hard pressed to find CSOs that focus on or attach a high and continuing priority to advocacy for information access rights and related issues. Sure we have bodies such as the Public Interest Access Centre, PILCH, Transparency International and the Accountability Round Table alert to these issues who speak up on occasion along with human rights and civil liberties groups, and from the professional ranks, librarians, archivists, law societies and bar associations. And Open Australia who just gets on delivering Hansard in byte sizes on a plate.

As Craig Thomler observed recently however, we lack a robust public discussion on democracy, government openness, transparency and the role of Gov 2.0 in the mix.

No leadership here from an Article XIX, active in Europe and elsewhere, a Campaign for Freedom of Information as in the UK, or national bodies like the National Freedom of Information Coalition and or the hundreds of groups that belong to them in the US. Not one Australian organisation is listed among the hundreds of worldwide members of the Freedom of Information Advocates Network.

Of course there's the media. The media coalition Australia's Right to Know was formed in 2007 to provide a new stronger profile for FOI and other law reforms, building on the ongoing efforts of media bodies such as the Australian Press Council and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

But as David Salter writing in Crikey in April (Your right to know whatever happened to the Right to Know) noted, after getting off to a big start in 2007 and through until 2009, it has now all but disappeared. The last published submission was October 2009, the last media release May 2010. Salter observed at the time "the looming extinction-by-neglect of the whole Right to Know campaign reflects a huge cultural shift within the managerial ranks of its main champion, News Limited."

The slide continues. In June The  Australian reported that ARTK's Creina Chapman was leaving News to join Tony Abbott's staff. However the website (described by Salter as looking like an unweeded garden) with a few add-ons to a home page for a 2009 conference still lists her as the contact person. When I rang the given number on Monday this week, the amiable fellow on the other end said he knew nothing about ARTK-"only been here three weeks"- and this was the first ARTK call he had received. He undertook to get someone to contact me, but I'm still waiting.

In early 2008 months after my involvement with ARTK as Deputy Chair of the Independent Audit of Free Speech finished I went to see John Hartigan, then head of News Ltd and ARTK, to make a pitch for the establishment of a permanent, professional and appropriately funded body to research, advocate, educate and lobby on freedom of speech, and the public’s right to be informed. I suggested that the media needed to seek out others who shared these interests, and that it cede some power to them so that the coalition could seek to deliver what its name conveyed-Australia's Right to Know. Voices on these issues were weak, sporadic, divided and underfunded and the coalition was well placed to change this. Hartigan listened politely, nodded at the appropriate time but that was it-and my last contact with ARTK.

So in 2012 only a few of those very active 600,000 CSOs spend much time and effort on advocacy on information access issues, and Australia lacks a high profile co-ordinated representative body focused on community interest in advancing the cause. 

Individuals as much as organisations carry the flag. People inside government who have leadership responsibility such as the information commissioners. And outside government academics such as Rick Snell, Moira Paterson and Johan Lidberg, and journalists including Michael McKinnon of the Seven Network, Sean Parnell of The Australian, Jack Waterford and Markus Mannheim of the Canberra Times, Kelvin Bissett of the Nine Network, Matthew Moore and Linton Besser of the Sydney Morning Herald, and Josh Gordon and Melissa Fyffe of The Age to name just a few. And the occasional blogger has a thing to say as well.
(Update- I'm sure there are other prominent individuals such as Dr Nicholas Gruen who should have been mentioned. I'll add them here as I think or others remind me of them.)

There are also lots of public spirited individuals pushing the envelope on access issues associated with important causes right across the country who might support a public voice if we could find one.

What chance a real "australia's right to know." Takers?

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