What a wimp our wannabe Prime Minister is. The Australian’s business commentator Matthew Stevens was spot on this morning when he blasted the Treasurer for not sticking his head above the parapet to explain why he’d overturned the National Competition Council’s attempted declaration of BHP Billiton’s $2 billion Mt Newman railway in the Pilbara.

Similar themes were pushed by Fred Brenchley and John Durie in The AFR because it was a big decision and sent shares in Fortescue Metals tumbling $1.23 or 16.8% to $6.07, a $292 million market capitalisation wipe-out.

When Costello made his controversial decision to block the Shell takeover of Woodside in 2001, he was big enough to come out and argue the case. This time he is refusing to explain his thinking, even though BHP Billiton CEO Chip Goodyear thought it was important enough to call a press conference and investor briefing yesterday.

Perhaps the man most likely is developing a serious aversion to public scrutiny – his ban of Crikey from the budget lock-up just being one manifestation of a broader character flaw. It’s hard to conclude anything else given the ongoing fight before the High Court about the Treasurer’s right to stymie Australia’s Freedom of Information laws on spurious grounds.

As former NSW Auditor General Tony Harris pointed out in The AFR yesterday, Cossie even refused to release publicly available Hansard transcripts as part of The Australian’s noble fight against secrecy. He also fought the Australian Press Council’s attempt to appear in the case.

Harris was a tad petty in failing to credit The Australian, although John Fairfax and Rural Press have joined News Ltd in its High Court fight, but his overall point was strong:

You could see this anti-information philosophy at work when Costello issued a conclusive certificate withholding from the media documents already in the hands of the public. His reluctance to share documents is shown in Treasury’s latest annual report. In 2004-05, the department allowed full access to information in six cases, part access in seven and no access in nine.

Information is power in the modern age and the Howard Government has also substantially weakened our system of campaign finance disclosure by lifting the threshold for donations from $1500 to $10,000. The amazing control over troop movements and any sort of Defence activity is another feature of the Howard Government’s hardline approach to disclosure and transparency.

However, under Prime Minister Costello this obsession with secrecy appears likely to get even worse. And that, along with Cossie’s infamous glass jaw, is the most worrying aspect of the succession.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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