Sir Humphrey would be delighted with the state of affairs in Canberra…

Crikey readers will recall how Sir Humphrey used to josh about Freedom From Information. That joke isn’t funny anymore in Canberra. Not only is our public service regularly stood over by the Howard Cabinet and its bovver boys, but basic accountability is going out the window.

We’ve plugged the work being done by Michael McKinnon, the Australian’s Freedom of Information editor, before. Someone’s got to. It is admirable – an incredible defence of our right to know and our democracy.

Here’s one occasion when you shouldn’t whinge about Rupert. Instead, Crikey readers should be giving up a rousing three cheers for his local satrap, John Hartigan, for backing McKinnon.

If anyone deserves some opprobrium here, it’s other media outlets for not covering what they no doubt would claim is “the Australian’s yarn” – and not following the Australian’s lead. If our media organisations launched a coordinated FOI onslaught against the Government, it could make life very difficult for senior ministers, senior staffers and senior bureaucrats alike. Wimps.

But back to The Australian’s latest, and this doozy of an item that appeared on Saturday under Paul Whittaker’s byline:

“Reserve Bank governor Ian Macfarlane has used extraordinary legal powers to keep the central bank’s deliberations on interest rates secret,” it says.

“Using powers given to him by Treasurer Peter Costello, Mr Macfarlane has issued a ‘conclusive certificate’ — a gag — on the RBA board’s minutes, saying their release is not in the public interest.”

A point of international comparison? It’s a cracker:

“This stands in direct contrast to US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s regular publication of the discussions of the board meetings that set interest rates for the world’s largest economy.”

And the excuses? They’re just plain scary:

“Mr Macfarlane’s action on Thursday came just three days before the start of a hearing in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in which The Weekend Australian was set to challenge the RBA’s decision under the Freedom of Information Act not to release the minutes of its meetings and voting records for 2003/04.

“In defence of its position, the RBA lodged affidavits from long-serving former board member Dick Warburton and former RBA governor Bernie Fraser.

“Mr Warburton said release of the minutes would expose external directors to undue criticism and pressure from the sectorial groups they nominally represent’.”

Just look at that line again. “Mr Warburton said release of the minutes would expose external directors to undue criticism and pressure from the sectorial groups they nominally represent’.”

Sectional groups? Interesting. They’re not mentioned in the Reserve Bank Act 1959 . Have a dekko at the RBA’s own site here.

“The Reserve Bank Board’s obligations with respect to monetary policy are laid out in Sections 10(2) and 11(1) of the Act. Section 10(2) of the Act, which is often referred to as the Bank’s ‘charter’, says:

“ ‘It is the duty of the Reserve Bank Board, within the limits of its powers, to ensure that the monetary and banking policy of the Bank is directed to the greatest advantage of the people of Australia and that the powers of the Bank … are exercised in such a manner as, in the opinion of the Reserve Bank Board, will best contribute to:

(a) the stability of the currency of Australia;
(b) the maintenance of full employment in Australia; and
(c) the economic prosperity and welfare of the people of Australia.’ ”

Now, which Prime Minister got elected on the slogan “For all of us?”.

And which party made much in the eighties, during the Hawke years, about how “consensus” was actually corporatism – a club of big interests that squeezed ordinary punters – and made melodramatic links with Mussolini’s fascism. Katy West even squeezed out a slim book on the subject before the men in white coats came for her.

Now look at what The Australian has to say:

“Mr Fraser’s affidavit remains confidential – so even the reasons for keeping the minutes secret remain secret.”

Sir Humphrey would be delighted. The insiders are safe – and the rest of us can all get stuffed.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey