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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Transparency and 'tone at the top'

You don't create a culture of secrecy in a week, but tone at the top is shaped from Day One.

Immigration is a case study in motion.

The brand name attached to dealing with boat arrivals 'Operation Sovereign Borders' is a message in itself. The details are now 'border security operational' or 'tactical' matters.

Asylum seeker boat arrivals, under Labor announced as they occurred, are now to be announced in a weekly briefing by Minister Morrison. Accompanied by Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell.

Any boat turn arounds are likely to be kept secret.

The Minister for Immigration has made it clear who is managing the information flows:
"There's one spokesperson for the portfolio of immigration and border protection and you're looking at him. And I'll be the one fronting things, not public servants.''
Of course the Department of Immigration and Citizenship is not known for openness and transparency.

Last year former head of the Attorney General's Department Robert Cornall after a review concluded that at a time when pro-disclosure was required "the Department presently appears to have more of an attitude of resistance to disclosure."

I gave DIAC the booby prize for what appears to be classic gaming the system in dealing with applications lodged as part of the Behind the Wire project on the Righttoknow platform

Nick Olle this week in the Global Mail detailed an associated run around with DIAC maintaining its decisions fully comply with the provisions of the law. Hmm..

Presumably the past practice continues in DIAC (and Prime Minister and Cabinet and other agencies) of providing the minister's office with time to comment on decisions regarding FOI applications. A meeting of minds may not take long.

Given the indicators of tone at the top in Week One you wonder who is up for speaking truth to power about the public right to know, the public interest in scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of government activity, and in disclosure of information that would inform discussion and public debate on matters of public importance? Months or a year away and up to the Office of Australian information Commissioner in an FOI review decision perhaps?

Then there's the trust issue so important to the PM.

Quite apart from the administrative cost of forcing formal FOI applications for information unlikely to be exempt but that could be provided promptly and efficiently at a fraction of the cost. 

This editorial in The Canberra Times Abbott stops the transparency boat - that has 'Jack Waterford' written all over it in invisible ink - is well worth a read. Excessive secrecy begets  deception and worse if the past is a guide.

None of the Immigration 'tone' is offset by other indicators of the Abbott Government approach to open, transparent government. When given the opportunity in a media conference last week to say something about transparency, for example a briefing after cabinet meets, Prime Minister Abbott didn't grab it, tending in the other direction
 ''I am not going to commit to talking unless I've got something to say. I think that there's been far too much empty talk from people who should know better at senior levels of government over the last few years. I really do want to begin as I mean to continue.''

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