Democracy 101: the right to know

As the new Parliament opens for 2008, all politicians must remember this: the people who have just voted for you are entitled to know what you’re doing.

Because lately, you haven’t been too good at telling them.

It’s Democracy 101, as Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser knew when he said that if  Australians were to make valid judgements on government policy, they need the greatest possible access to information.

“How can any community progress without continuing and informed and intelligent
debate?” he said. “How can there be debate without information?”

More than thirty years on, when I talk to non-journalists, most are genuinely
shocked to hear how poorly Australia now ranks in terms of free speech.

Independent reports place us far behind the democracies we should match: New Zealand, the UK and Canada. Instead we rank closer to, but still behind, countries like Costa Rica
and Taiwan.

Seeking robust freedom of speech is not a self indulgent game played by the media. Freedom of the press, exercised responsibly, is the base line for freedom of speech generally in the community.

Over time we’ve seen a slide into secrecy and a growing lack of transparency which
is severely reducing what we can know about how we are governed and how justice
is dispensed.

It’s absurd to suggest that the latest restrictions on our freedom of speech are
necessary to protect the innocent from invasion of privacy, or the threat of

The media should not have open slather. No one wants to jeopardise national
security, or a fair trial. It serves no one to identify a rape victim, or an undercover police officer giving evidence in court.

These are not the issues. At issue is the vast amount of information that rightly
belongs to the Australian public, but which is simply not available to them.

Secrecy, when it is necessary, should be in the best interests of the people, not in the
interests of a government seeking to avoid pesky scrutiny or embarrassment.

The limits on our right to know should be clearly defined and understood. They should be debated, not just imposed without question.

Without these parameters, we create a fertile environment for, at best, lack of accountability; at worst, downright corruption.

In May, News Limited and eleven other media organisations formed an unprecedented
coalition called Australia’s Right to Know, to fight for reform as a united front.

We commissioned former ICAC Commissioner Irene Moss to conduct an independent
audit of free speech. We needed credible evidence, not anecdote.

Our suspicions were confirmed. The Moss Report was handed down in October revealing
a litany of deeply troubling problems.

It identified more than 500 legal prohibitions on journalists, including 335 Acts with specific secrecy provisions.

I have to wonder, what is it about information under the Food Act, the Renewable Energy Act or the Rice Marketing Act that must be kept secret?

If journalists want to know, and we do, we’ve got an oxymoron called the Freedom
of Information Act to help us. It’s not free, and often not very informative.

Too many sensible and valid FOI requests are rejected, delayed, unhelpful or simply
too expensive. In one case, we were quoted $1.25m in “fees” to get an auditor’s
report into MPs travel expenses.

Then we have the over-zealous use of court suppression orders. Too much is censored,
too often. Is justice really served when the name of a public figure is suppressed to save them from embarrassment in a criminal case?

The Moss Report pointed to “a set of official and unofficial practices which
together are whittling away the notion of free and easy access [to information]”

Now the question is: how to reverse the slide?

Governments of all stripes and levels must accept responsibility to their citizens to govern openly; and must recognize that current levels of transparency are inadequate.

They need a two-pronged approach. First, instil a cultural shift towards openness.

The presumption must be that government information is available unless there is an overwhelming reason why it should not be.

It will take leadership and courage to unravel the entrenched culture of resistance by politicians and bureaucrats to any disclosure, even of the most benign information.

Second, we need radical legislative reform. In particular, a wholesale overhaul of FOI
regimes across Australia.

Whistleblowers who disclose information in the public interest need laws to protect them, as do the journalists who they choose to trust.

Judges need gentle re-education so that their suppression orders, when imposed, do not lose sight of the bedrock of our court system: that justice is not just done, but also seen to be done. Open justice is good justice.

The same is true of our government: to be governed fairly, we must see how we are

Those who represent our interests should heed the wise words of Sir Anthony Mason of the High Court, in Commonwealth v. John Fairfax & Sons, in 1980.

“It is unacceptable in our democratic society that there should be a restraint on the publication of information relating to government when the only vice of that information is that it enables the public to discuss, review and criticise government action.”

In my view, this is the true challenge to our new Parliament.

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