Long election campaigns can bring out the worst in politics but Attorney-General Philip Ruddock’s announcement of a review of Freedom of Information law plumbs new depths for sheer, gob-smacking cynicism and hypocrisy.
This is the same government that used the secrecy stamp to stop Australians finding how much income tax they really pay. By issuing a conclusive certificate against The Australian’s FOI request on the issue, the government deliberately forced the courts to ignore the public interest in releasing those documents.
This government has consistently ignored the public interest in document release by using these certificates. Somehow it should now be trusted to improve accountability?
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal will hand down a decision in coming weeks on access to all the policy documents that produced WorkChoices. Yet again, a conclusive certificate means the AAT could not hear arguments on why it was in the public interest to release these documents despite the central role of IR in the election campaign. Indeed, the certificate meant the hearing was in secret. That’s right. Even the government’s arguments and evidence on why documents should be secret is kept secret!
Mr Ruddock is well aware of more than 100 recommendations from the 1995 Law Reform Commission to improve FOI. He has done nothing about them. Similarly, the more recent Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report on needed FOI reform has also been ignored.
But with the News Ltd-led Free Speech Coalition pushing the Free Speech agenda with an apparently supportive ALP, suddenly the Coalition has discovered the issue even as one of its most senior public servants, Dr Ken Henry, publicly states his intention to effectively thwart the FOI Act to protect his political masters.
Mr Ruddock has said the FOI review, reporting back in 2008, well after any election, will look at greater consistency between State and Federal laws although this has never been an issue.
FOI costs the federal government just over $20 million a year. Compare that to that cost of the AWB or the children overboard cover-ups.
Mr Ruddock also notes the review will look at reducing the regulatory burden on government and to protect government’s ability to obtain forthright advice in a move that can only further constrain FOI Act. FOI provides a legal right of access so citizens can judge themselves whether politicians and bureaucrats are making the best decisions with taxpayer’s money. Citizens cannot cast informed votes if information is denied by the government to protect its political support.
That is why real FOI reform is important to our democracy. Mr Ruddock’s press release on the FOI review contained no mention whatsoever about improving public access under FOI.
It is fair to presume the public are being presented with a frantic and cynical smokescreen on the eve of an election.