Since its beginnings, the government has made a series of decisions that mean public scrutiny of its policies and their implementation is more difficult.
The new government, it soon became clear, was even more determined than its predecessors to control the flow of information to the media and the public. The earliest decisions set the tone. All requests for interviews with Coalition frontbenchers would need the approval of the prime minister’s office. MPs were banned from engaging in political commentary on Facebook and Twitter. The code of conduct for ministerial staff gained a new clause, also banning political commentary on social media. One disenchanted senator, Ian Macdonald, accused Abbott’s office and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, of “obsessive, centralised control.”
Next, the government introduced rules covering public servants’ use of social media in their official and private capacities. “The sweeping new rules will even cover public servants posting political comments anonymously, including mummy bloggers on parenting websites,” marvelled the Daily Telegraph. Public employees were expected to report breaches by their colleagues.
The move was supported by the Human Rights Commission’s new “freedom commissioner,” Tim Wilson. “Ultimately,” he said, “public servants voluntarily and knowingly choose to accept these limits on their conduct when they accept employment.” In other words, if they didn’t like the new restrictions, they had the freedom to resign.
The government also tightened freedom of information, or FOI, procedures. After the previous election, in 2010, at least seventeen departments released the briefs they had prepared for the incoming government, providing valuable information to journalists and the public about policy positions and challenges. No such release came after last year’s election, reported Crikey’s Bernard Keane, and officials were unable to explain the logic behind the reversal. FOI requests for the briefings were also refused.
The government isn’t only being secretive about its own activities; its decisions are also having a detrimental impact on institutions that produce knowledge about our society and environment. The efforts to shut down official sources of information about preventive health and nutrition, financial planning and the charitable sector make it more difficult for consumers to make informed decisions. In each of these cases, the government has favoured narrow sectional interests over the broader public interest.
What is at stake in these moves to reduce public transparency and public knowledge is not only who gains partisan advantage, but also, and much more importantly, the capacity of citizens and consumers to make informed choices. As they proceed, Australian democracy will become the poorer.