Treasury’s refusal to release its election briefing, which was requested under freedom of information laws, is the latest in a succession of blows to transparency in Australian governance.

It’s a document prepared for an incoming government during the caretaker period, and it’s usually very revealing. This was not a government decision — freedom of information decisions are made internally within departments. But it was a decision made with the government in mind. Treasury declared releasing the briefing document would inhibit the quality of its advice to the government.

The one positive is that this lays to rest charges of Treasury’s politicisation by Labor: it released incoming government briefs in 2007 and 2010 when Labor was elected, but apparently feels it shouldn’t when the Coalition is elected.

But in addition to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s nonsensical invocation of “operational reasons” for hiding details relating to asylum seekers, the shuttering of the Climate Commission and the contemplation about withholding the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook because it might worry voters, the decision reinforces the sense that under this government, transparency is going backwards.

Here’s some advice for the Coalition: think back to the last years of the Howard government and reflect on the myriad scandals that plagued its final terms — AWB, the persecution of Mohamed Haneef, the rorting of regional development grants, the detention of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon.

A common thread through those scandals was a lack of transparency and accountability that led officials and politicians to act in ways they may not have, had they known their actions would be held up to public scrutiny.

Secrecy might seem the safe course for governments, but in the end it corrodes accountability and therefore performance, and destroys trust.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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