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Veil of Secrecy: Unmasking the Contradictions in Australia’s Transparent Government Claims

By Denis Hay

The Australian federal government, like many others, publicly commits to transparency and accountability. However, a critical examination of its Freedom of Information (FOI) laws reveals a complex reality. This article delves into the dysfunctional aspects of Australia’s FOI laws, contrasting them with the government’s claims of transparency.

Evidence from Research

The effectiveness of FOI laws in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand has been mixed. While they have been successful in certain areas like protecting government secrets and maintaining ministerial accountability, they fall short in facilitating public participation in government decision-making (Hazell, 1989). This aligns with the concerns about the Australian model, which faces barriers in terms of practical refusal, charges, and delays, suggesting a need for significant change to improve access and transparency (Moon, 2018).

Further issues arise with the inconsistency in government policies and practices related to algorithmic disclosure, indicating a lack of effective mechanisms for accountability in government algorithms (Fink, 2017). Additionally, Australian FOI laws require reform to address challenges in accessibility, responsiveness, and integrity, particularly in the context of planning transparency and accountability (Schapper et al., 2020).

Despite the Australian government’s commitment to transparency, the current state of its FOI laws suggests a significant gap between rhetoric and reality. The challenges and barriers within these laws point to an urgent need for reform to ensure genuine transparency and public engagement in governmental processes.

Reforming Australia’s FOI Laws for Effective Public Information Access

To address the shortcomings of Australia’s Freedom of Information (FOI) laws and to align them with the federal government’s claims of transparency, several key reforms are needed.

  1. Establish a Positive Right of Access: Improved FOI laws should set up a clear and positive right of access to government records. This includes having narrowly-drawn exemptions and appointing independent arbiters to resolve disputes, ensuring that access is not unduly restricted (Michael, 1986).
  2. Accountability for Information Officers: There should be greater accountability for officers responsible for supplying information. Ensuring that these officers are held to high standards of transparency and responsiveness is crucial for effective public access (McLaughlin, 2000).
  3. Reconcile Secrecy Provisions with Existing Laws: Current secrecy provisions need to be reconciled with existing laws, public opinion, and media support. This includes addressing fee increases and campaigning for more robust media support to enhance transparency (Missen, 1986).
  4. Enhanced Penalties for Public Records Denials: Implementing enhanced penalties and legal consequences for improper public records request denials is critical. This measure will ensure open and transparent access to public information, thus promoting governmental accountability (Marzen, 2017).
  5. Adapt to the Digital Age: The laws must be updated to address the challenges of the digital age, balancing demands for privacy protection, open justice, and secrecy. This includes adapting to technological advancements and ensuring that digital records are as accessible as physical ones (Birkinshaw, 2019).
  6. Comprehensive Evaluations of FOI Laws: Regular and comprehensive evaluations of FOI laws are essential to assess their effectiveness and find areas for improvement. These evaluations should be conducted by independent bodies to ensure objectivity (Mueller, 2019).

By implementing these reforms, Australia can ensure that its FOI laws not only keep the public well-informed but also truly reflect the government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.

Question for Readers: How can the public ensure that the government truly upholds the principles of transparency and accountability?

Call to Action: Encourage your local representatives to advocate for reform in FOI laws and promote transparency in government.

References:

Nothing to see here: Albo’s vows of transparency vanish in a veil of secrecy, Michael West Media.

Accountable governance requires effective FOI, Law Council of Australia.

Freedom of information reforms and cultural change, Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

Lengthy Delays Undermine Confidence in Australian FOI Process, The Australia Institute.

Governing for integrity: A blueprint for reform, Transparency International Australia.

Denis Hay: At 82 years young, I stand as a testament to the enduring power of dedication and belief in social justice. My journey has been shaped by a deep conviction that every individual deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and that equal opportunities for thriving should be a universal right.

My beliefs are not just ideals; they are the driving force behind my active engagement in advocating for change. I am deeply concerned about the pressing issue of climate change, recognizing its urgency and the need for immediate, collective action. This is not just a matter of policy for me, but a moral imperative to safeguard our planet for the generations to come.

As an administrator of several Facebook pages, I use my platform to challenge the prevailing neoliberal ideology, which I see as a destructive force against our society and environment. My goal is to foster a political system that truly serves the people, ensuring access to essential needs like decent housing, secure and well-paid jobs, education, and healthcare for all.

In this chapter of my life, my mission is clear: to leave behind a world that is better and more just for my grandchildren and future generations. It is a commitment that guides my every action, a legacy of compassion and advocacy that I hope will inspire others to join the cause.

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7 comments

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  1. Clakka

    Thanks for your article and question,

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    XXXX XXXX XX XXXXXX. XXX XXXXXX XXXXX XXX XXXX. XXXX XX XXXXXX XXXXXX XXX XXXXXX XXXX. XXX XXXXXX XXXX XXXX XX XXXXXX XXXXXX XXX XXXXXX XXXX XXX XXXX. XXXX XXXXX XXX XXXX XXX XXXX. XXX XXXXXX XXXX XXXX XX XXXXXX.

    Thank you and best regards

    PS: Apologies for the edits by my automated FOI system. [Oh f*#k it, and after all that effort!]

  2. Michael Taylor

    Clakka, when I worked for the public service under Rudd and Gillard all FOI requests were attended to pronto. Our Group Manager would expect the pertinent staff to drop everything. The FOI was the priority.

    I understand that it’s slackened off a bit after 9 years of the Coalition. I’d be disappointed if the current government hasn’t lifted the standard.

  3. Clakka

    Indeed, MT,

    The likes of the imbroglios of Robodebt, and the PWC / Big4 matters reveal that there are not only preventive entanglements at play within the PS, but also that old chestnut ‘commercial-in-confidence’ cover being used to obscure proper descriptions of the likes of variations, scope extensions, delay causations etc in public registers of the contracting / consulting sphere.

    It is the oldest trick in the book to generate simplistic (non-expert) CAPEX / feasibility / vfm scenarios to rush a pork-barrel or politically sensitive / strategic project to market, whilst leaving ‘loopholes’ that only very experienced contractors will notice (and ignore), then together, after award, go on to ‘discover’, run amok with, and recover additional costs and damages. All to the cost and discombobulation of the taxpayers.

    For about 20 years I was engaged as a ‘claims’ expert / forensic analyst, and bought resolution successfully to more than $2.5 billion worth of such matters. It’s a grueling process, where much concealment and intimidation is flung about. Many involved will opt to roll-over for a tummy tickle and tacit promise of a never-ending cycle of ‘favours’.

    In nearly all circumstances probity rules are only paid lip-service to, contracts are constructed by feckless lawyers to conceal and shift risk and incorporate unworkable time-bars – most often with provisions that are outwith the law, and contract superintendence / administration is far from properly neutral, and more often machiavellian and divisive.

    During the process, it brings no joy to watch the ‘club of offenders’ move from obstinate arrogance through to jabbering fall-guys trapped in the web as ‘discovery’ unfolds and proceedings draw near. After all, they are well used to those at the top dealing with ‘internals’, such as Auditor General’s reports – legal proceedings are vastly different.

    These beguilements happen on an industrial scale, and rely on a collaboration of tiers of what should properly be called fraud. Yet although recompense may be delivered, seldom is anyone from within the ‘club of offenders’ prosecuted for fraud. In the alternative, such handy collaborators are just shifted around to carry on their perpetrations as and when needed for another venture.

    The gutting of the PS, esp. high skill and experience, and the revision of tenure provisions for senior PS is a political master-stroke at play right across all levels of govt throughout Oz. It enables a mafia-like control exercised by politicians and senior bureaucrats held to ransom by the limited tenure provisions. In that system dysfunctional FOI and Administrative Appeals are essential tools, as are the absence of laws requiring truth in political promulgations, the obscuring of the political donations schemes, and branch stacking and pre-selection manipulations.

    The democratic process puts at risk the hard work and good intentions of aspiring politicians and MPs. Its checks and balances are important for informing the voting populace so they may conscionably cast their vote. Having attained their positions as MPs and especially Ministers, there is a great risk of being corrupted by hubris. To those so affected or vulnerable, whilst being confident of knowing one’s stuff, the continuing exercise of power may be, for the good of the country, be best assured by ensuring the structure of the checks and balances maintain one in highest regard. Surely no-one so prone would be in disagreement?

    We have seen the structure of those checks and balances slowly, but surely and increasingly corrupted over the last, say, 30 years. Albo’s Labor is making inroads on the mess, but it’s a politically perilous venture, against a hungry opposition, lobbyists, and the venal mainstream media.

    Democracy in America and Britain has been trashed by it, that Oz can save itself, hope springs eternal.

  4. Denis Hay

    It is a sad state of affairs Clakka that Australia has sunk to this level of, should I say “hidden corruption”. The Public Service heeds to be rebuilt to its former glory where it can give genuine fearless advice to government. This cannot happen if your job/position is not secure.

  5. LambsFry Simplex.

    Michael Taylor sees it best.

    So-called “reform” , as dictated by the wizened gnomes of the international financial centres, enriching narrow-focussed oligarchs and their various desensitised lackies. has damaged many a community and its infrastructures in the cause of plunder.

    Shopfront.

  6. LambsFry Simplex.

    I liked the article, but I do feel a bit sad.. apologies, Denis.

  7. Denis Hay

    LambsFry Simplex, it is sad that in a so-called democracy, governments find the need to keep so much secret from the voting public. Making informed decisions about important issues has become a challenge. My view is if a government has nothing to hide there is very little that needs to be kept secret.

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