Australian governments — federal, state and territory — often mislead the public about important health issues by suppressing the results of research.

That’s the conclusion of what is thought to be the first formal study of government suppression of information in the health sector.

When University of Western Australia researchers asked 302 public health academics in 17 institutions whether they had seen research findings suppressed by governments, they were told of 142 such incidents occurring between 2001 and 2006.

Twenty-one per cent of academics had personally experienced such a problem over that period.

Governments most commonly suppressed research through sanitising reports, or delaying or prohibiting publication.

The effect of the suppression was, not surprisingly, to protect the interests of government by, for example, keeping potentially damaging information about health services under wraps.

The researchers found that 87% of attempts to suppress information succeeded “and, consequently, the public was left uninformed or given a false impression”.

They concluded that systematic interventions involving researchers, scientific journals, governments, and the media are needed to preserve the integrity of public health research being done with government involvement.

“Our findings confirm that the practice is widespread in Australia and is not a problem restricted to isolated aberrations on the part of atypical government officials,” they said. “Rather the problem is endemic on a system-wide basis.”

The study was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health some months ago but, according to the researchers, has received little coverage outside of WA.

It deserves a wider airing now that we have a Federal Government chanting the mantra of “evidence-based policy”.

Next time a Rudd Minister sprouts such a phrase, someone should ask what systematic efforts the Government is making to ensure that:

  • government programs and initiatives are being independently and rigourously evaluated;
  • the results of these evaluations are published fully and frankly, so that the evidence base can continue developing and be shared.

These are also good questions for state and territory ministers. It always struck me as a tad unfair that the Howard Government copped so much flak for suppressing information when state Labor governments have made an artform of it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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