Who would have thought Rupert Murdoch would become a champion in fighting the Howard Government over Freedom of Information? Read on.

News Limited is making a fascinating foray into the political and media culture of this country. It’s a great story – but other outlets don’t seem to have noticed. One of the most significant court cases for the Australian media in the past two decades begins this week.

Remember this item from February, Peter Costello’s Dirty Little Secret? It told how The Australian’s Freedom of Information editor, Michael McKinnon, had spent 10 months using FOI in pursuit of documents relating to the tax burden on ordinary workers – only to be frustrated when the Treasurer issued what is known as a “conclusive certificate”.

A conclusive certificate, Butterworths legal reporting service says, has the effect of establishing that any given document is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

And as McKinnon reported at the time, “administrative law experts… said the only occasion on which they could recall a minister issuing a conclusive certificate involved former industrial relations minister Peter Reith’s denial of Labor access to consultants’ reports on the Howard Government’s waterfront reform program in 1997-98”.

Costello claims putting out the papers “has the potential to lead to confusion and to mislead the public”. An attempt to get them through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal failed – so now McKinnon has upped the ante. He and a high-powered legal team will be walking into the Federal Court on Monday to challenge the Treasurer’s decision.

He has the backing of his bosses. The Oz’s editor, Chris Mitchell, is heavily on side. News Ltd chief executive John Hartigan has already given Costello a belting over the matter in a speech to the Australian Press Council you can find here. And if Harto’s on side, then it’s surely not too much to think aloud that Rupert himself must feel everything that’s going on is hunky dory.

The matter will be fascinating for observers of Australian politics and media watchers – and the timing couldn’t be better.

First, the politics. An election is how many weeks away? September 18 and October 23 are the current favoured dates. Whatever. Talk about topical.

The Government has made tax a key election battleground. Tax cuts headlined the Budget – but tax cuts that only helped a favoured few. They won’t want to see their policymaking getting the full forensic treatment now.

Opposition families spokesman Wayne Swan has had plenty to say on marginal tax rates and bracket creep in the past. “The Government’s tax and social security changes have caused nearly a doubling in the number who face punitive marginal tax rates,” he told the Labor National Conference earlier this year.

However, as the echoes of Mark Latham’s primal scream therapy of the past week slowly fade away and policy returns to centre stage, will the ALP be keen on anything that even hints that their current “trust us, it’s a real beauty”, isn’t an adequate tax blue print? Unlikely.

Whatever way the poll goes, Peter Costello wants to be leader of the Liberal Party. Great timing again.

Costello is the ogre in this case – the hard guy spending taxpayers’ money to ensure taxpayers can’t discover the details of just how those very same funds are taken away from them. That will go down a beauty on the job application for the top spot. Great look, Mr Treasurer.

Could anything be more of matter of legitimate public interest? Ten points each for McKinnon, Mitchell and Hartigan. Ten points for that tribune of the people, Rupert Murdoch, too. And another 10 points to each of them for what this case will do to their rivals.

Make no mistake. This matter is the most important Freedom of Information case in the legislation’s 22-year history.

McKinnon outlined how the Act came about in a recent speech:

“When the Freedom of Information Act came into force in Australia 1982 the aim was to vastly improve the relationship between citizens and governments. Removing the shroud of secrecy over decisions by government agencies on policy and administration would allow Australians to judge the impact of decisions on their lives and the reasons for government decisions. Government secrecy can only foster the growing contempt felt by many Australians for our political processes and there should be little surprise this disenchantment should occur when an FOI Act fails in its object of extending as far as possible the right of access to information held by government.

“Democracies require transparency and openness and secrecy hampers the ability of citizens to participate and judge politicians and governments. Effective FOI laws open the government’s activities to scrutiny, discussion, comment and review – an intrinsic right in a democracy. Further, politicians are to some extent focused on achieving re-election and are therefore strongly motivated to reduce criticism. Often the price paid by politicians for support from interest groups are poor policies which if exposed to the light of public scrutiny would not stand the test of fairness nor garner broader electoral support.”

He quoted two former Prime Ministers:

“Malcolm Fraser noted … that ‘people and Parliament have the knowledge required to pass judgement on the government…(and)….too much secrecy inhibits people’s capacity to judge the government’s performance.’ In 1983, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke said: ‘Information about Government operations is not, after all, some kind of `favour’ to be bestowed by a benevolent government or to be extorted from a reluctant bureaucracy. It is, quite simply, a public right’.”

Then McKinnon made the logical leap:

“The extent of government secrecy, by its very nature is difficult to quantify. What is obvious however, is the current Federal Government has systematically sought to prevent scrutiny on some of the most important issues in Australia. The Tampa ‘babies overboard’ controversy that dominated the last election campaign, the weapons of mass destruction rationale for Australia’s involvement in the Iraqi War and Australia’s knowledge of mistreatment of prisoners are all issues where government accountability has been lessened because of secrecy.”

Too bloody right, mate.

In fairness to McKinnon, we should also quote his next two sentences:

“I hasten to add, secrecy is not confined to the Federal Government nor to politicians of any particular parties. State Governments also ignore the intent of FOI legislation but constraints of time will mean I focus on the failings of the Commonwealth FOI Act today.”

That’s what we’re concentrating on in this item, too. And there can be no doubt that the Howard Government has refined media management and the control of news and information flows in a way no other administration in Australia has even tried. Remember what we said in How the PM Got Economic Policy Wrong last year.

“What’s been the greatest unsung triumph of the Howard Government? Unity.

“Remember the paralysis that gripped both the Liberal Party and its Coalition with the Nationals at various times during John Howard’s first term as Liberal Leader in the 1980s? Remember the way in which backbenchers crossed the floor from time to time during the Fraser years to vote against government legislation?

“Nowadays, the time when Liberals prided themselves on having the conscience vote that the caucus ballot denied Labor MPs seems as long gone as Menzies himself. Most Liberals have probably forgotten that crossing the floor was what once differentiated the Party from Labor.

“The Howard Government’s unity has been helped by the way it clamped down on alternate sources of information from government instrumentalities. Under Labor, various inquiries and semi-judicial tribunals used to cause havoc by releasing reports critical of government actions. The Howard government seems to have taken the line that such alternative views are a dangerous form of democratic bureaucracy.

“Secrecy has become its forte – but it has learned from the Kennett government and keeps the issue as far as possible from the media and public eye…”

Control freakery and spin have been the Howard Government’s stock in trade. It’s been assisted in this work by ruthless politicisation of the higher ranks of the public service, the shift to short term contracts for other public sector roles and even by the unintended disruptions to complex machinery of public administration bought about by otherwise worthwhile privatisation and outsourcing.

McKinnon and News Ltd are therefore not only bringing a case that gives them a great yarn, but one that is of enormous significance to every other media outlet. It’s a case that can benefit every Australian. For all of us.

McKinnon wrote about the case in this story last Friday. No other outlet has picked it up, however, according to a search of good old Google News.

That’s a pity – and exposes one of the greatest failings of our media in keeping governments (or any other entities, for that matter) accountable. Few outlets seem prepared to touch another outlet’s stories – no matter how good they are.

OK. It’s fair to imagine Fairfax – or what Fred Hilmer’s left – feeling hesitant about touching the story. Now. But sooner or later it surely must. Margo? And what about our fearless and independent national broadcaster? Where’s the ABC?

This is a story that’s in the public interest and in every media outlet’s interest, too.

Is there something about this matter that sticks in their throats – as much as it sticks in the throats of the Treasurer, the Prime Minister (for surely he was in the loop on this decision) and their opposition counterparts?

It’s a great yarn. Rupert Murdoch, freedom fighter. Strange but true. After all, you probably find odder things in the News of the World.

Disclosure: The author has commentated for Sky News Channel. Christian Kerr can be contacted at christian @crikey.com.au

Peter Fray

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