In retrospect, John Faulkner’s shift to Defence in the wake of Joel Fitzgibbon’s series of unfortunate events was a turning point in this Government’s approach to accountability and transparency.
The Rudd Government had started off strongly with a series of measures intended to improve accountability and transparency across a range of issues such as Government advertising, lobbying, political donations and FOI. Faulkner, as Cabinet Secretary, drove these reforms, even at one stage writing to Departmental Secretaries to tell them they needed to change their approach to FOI.
Some of the reforms, particularly electoral reforms, were stymied by the Coalition, which point-blank refused to cooperate on any improvements to electoral accountability, and by Steve Fielding, for his own incoherent reasons.
Since Senator Joe Ludwig replaced Faulkner, the Rudd Government has been backsliding. Ludwig has continued to push the Government’s FOI reforms, which no one opposes because the only loser will be this and future governments. But the momentum has gone out of electoral reforms, despite the Government issuing two very good Green Papers last year.
And earlier this year the Government changed its mind about its process for vetting government advertising to make sure it’s not partisan. Since 2008, the Auditor-General had performed that role, in line with Labor’s election commitment. The Coalition had criticised this as a potential politicisation of the ANAO. After a review by the Government’s current go-to reviewer, Howard-era Secretary Allan Hawke, the Auditor-General was replaced by a three-person committee – Hawke himself, another former Howard-era Secretary, Helen Williams, and respected former senior public servant Barbara Belcher.
The change was a sensible one, for exactly the reason the Coalition initially criticised it – the 2008 changes potentially undermined the independence of the ANAO. That didn’t stop the Coalition criticising the decision, but that’s politics.
But in the new committee’s first real test, it came a cropper. It approved the Government’s expensive – $30m – health reform advertising campaign, which doesn’t tell voters anything they didn’t already know about health reform, and can serve only the partisan purposes of reminding voters about what the Government has done. It’s the sort of campaign that is routinely run by State Labor Governments as “non-political” advertising primarily intended to make voters think well of the incumbent.
How the committee decided it wasn’t a plainly partisan campaign is a mystery, although it might reflect the extraordinarily vague “principles” against which advertising must now be assessed.
Today’s announcement that the Treasurer had received an exemption from the new process from Ludwig to run a counter-campaign to the mining industry’s deceitful anti-RSPT campaign, blows the whole framework away. Ludwig’s justification is that the Treasurer had told him “there is an active campaign of misinformation about the proposed changes and that Australians are concerned about how these changes will affect them.” He also noted “the Treasurer’s advice that, as tax reform involves changes to the value of some capital assets, they impact on financial markets.”
The Government might be on the receiving end of an hysterical, wholly deceitful and at times grubby campaign from the mining industry and its media cheersquad about the RSPT, but it has done its own credibility on the issue of transparency and accountability significant damage. It is now virtually indistinguishable from the Howard Government in its approach to advertising, if not quite its scope.
From the Government’s own cynical point of view, however, the decision was probably an easy one. It has received little if any kudos for its commitment to transparency and its achievements in that regard. Moreover, the Coalition, which has cynically blocked some of its efforts and which behaved disgracefully itself when in Government, has apparently suffered no damage. Indeed, the media has persistently overlooked the Opposition’s extensive efforts to block any transparency reforms from which it did not directly benefit. On this basis, the Government probably figures it is fighting with one hand tied behind its back.
Still, the question remains – how would John Faulkner have handled Swan’s request?