Watching the opposition blow hard on the NBN business plan yesterday was belly-laugh stuff. There’s regular political hypocrisy and then there’s the extra virgin, concentrate-they-make-concentrates-from version on offer from Tony Abbott yesterday when he interrupted question time to move “that this house requires the government immediately to publish the National Broadband Network business case”.

Let’s go back a few years, to 2005, specifically. After being interrupted by the 2004 election, the Howard government, via that fearless protector of civil liberties Phillip Ruddock, had reintroduced a set of amendments designed to dramatically curb the rights of asylum seekers from appealing decisions relating to protection visas, and other “proceedings without a reasonable prospect of success. The Migration Litigation Reform Bill 2005 was based, said Ruddock, on a detailed and thorough review of migration litigation in 2003, the Migration Litigation Review Committee headed by Hilary Penfold.

Given that substantial changes are being made in access to courts, you’d assume Ruddock would have released the Penfold Report to enable a fair assessment of whether his amendments reflected the committee’s conclusions.

No such luck. Ruddock refused to release the report. In fact he refused to release the report even after Liberal senators urged the government to release the report when considering the previous version of the bill.

It’s routine for governments not to release legal advice, of course — despite opposition and minor party senators stamping their feet and insisting on their right to see it. But Ruddock never invoked this defence for the Penfold Review. He simply refused to release it.

Other high-profile reports suffered the same fate under the Howard government. The Howard government’s review of health services delivery, conducted by a taskforce chaired by Andrew Podger, was provided to the government in 2005 and was never made public — even The Australian was moved to criticise John Howard for that. Podger had a repeat experience when he was asked to chair a review of military superannuation, which went to the government in July 2007 but wasn’t released until Labor got into office. And then there’s the famous KPMG report on the funding and efficiency of the ABC. That has never officially seen the light of day, although copies were leaked by — some say — ABC management. Then-Communications Minister Helen Coonan refused to release the KPMG report on the basis that it was part of the Budget process. It wasn’t part of the formal Budget process at all, though Coonan did use it in a successful effort to secure more funding for the ABC.

It’s not necessarily the case that the Howard government was wrong to refuse to release such documents. One of the great rituals of the Howard years was senate clerk Harry Evans magisterially declaring that the senate had the right to demand virtually whatever it liked, and the Howard government steadfastly ignoring him. It was frequently right to do so. Governments are entitled to confidentiality in the advice they receive. That doesn’t mean they don’t exploit that right far beyond what is justified by either the public interest or even good political practice, but the right exists nonetheless.

But there’s an interesting difference between the reports the Howard government declined to release, and the NBN study. All of the examples above were reports commissioned outside the existing advice framework of government, or even in the case of the KPMG report, sourced entirely from an external party. The NBN business plan is, literally, an internal government document. Even so, the government has committed to releasing it, but simply wants to remove confidential material from it before releasing it.

If the senate is so agitated about needing to see the NBN business plan, it should reconvene in December to discuss it when it is released. Senators can interrupt their early summer holidays and return to Canberra and, as the Christmas decorations go up, they can debate the merits of the implementation plan. I don’t think any of us would begrudge them that.

Inspired by the Croakey health blog’s register of unreleased documents, Crikey is going to compile a list of unreleased reports for governments of both persuasions that should have seen the light of day but never have — send your entries to [email protected]

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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