Inside Story

The Abbott government’s war on transparency

There’s a worrying thread running through decisionmaking in Canberra, writes Rodney Tiffen

Rodney Tiffen 5 June 2014 6104 words

Not simply partisan advantage: the Coalition’s Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison. Daniel Munoz/AAP Image

Political attention over the past few weeks has been fixed on the drama of the Abbott government’s first budget – the winners and losers, the broken promises, the prospects in the Senate. Beyond that, though, the budget reinforces a trend of potentially greater significance for the quality of Australian democracy. Since its beginnings, this government has systematically made scrutiny of its policies and their implementation more difficult.

As soon as the Coalition took government last September, it set about distinguishing itself from its defeated, discredited predecessor. It would be a “no surprises, no excuses” government, Tony Abbott promised, and his first weeks in the job were designed to project an image of methodical deliberation. “Never before in Australian history has there been such a quiet transition to a new administration,” veteran correspondent Laurie Oakes wrote admiringly. “Abbott and his team ignored the hungry media beast’s demand to be fed.”

Within months, though, Oakes was accusing the Coalition of “thumbing its nose at voters” by avoiding media scrutiny. 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.

In May, the attorney-general’s department declined to release a $400,000 report by KPMG examining three of Australia’s federal courts. According to the Australian’s Sean Parnell, it justified its decision on the novel grounds that to make it public “would have an impact on the proper and efficient conduct of the department” because “it would impede the provision of frank, independent advice from professional services firms to inform policy.” Such an open-ended exemption would justify withholding any consultancy report to government. As Parnell put it, “tactics of secrecy and obfuscation have returned to the fore in Canberra.”

Meanwhile, the under-resourced Office of the Australian Information Commissioner was taking 250 days, on average, to finalise requests for external reviews of decisions to refuse FOI requests. On budget night the government neatly disposed of this problem by abolishing the office. In future, appeals against FOI refusals are to be handled by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Attorney-General’s or the Commonwealth Ombudsman. The office was created in 2010 to address the long turnaround times and expensive appeals in the working of the FOI system; its abolition is likely to make it harder and more expensive for FOI users to extract information.

The government’s resistance to disclosure is having an impact not only on what information is released but also on what is produced, and by whom. Recent conservative governments have been much more active than the Rudd–Gillard government in moulding the senior sections of the public service to their liking. The most disturbing example is the Abbott government’s insistence, immediately on taking office, that Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson resign his position, with effect later this year. Both John Howard and Peter Costello advised against the forced resignation, and Parkinson’s predecessor, Ken Henry, described it as unprecedented in the department’s 113-year history. “No government has ever thought it appropriate to remove the head of the Treasury,” he said, “and put in somebody who they think is of… a more comfortable political character.” If that was Abbott’s motive, he said, then it was “disappointing” and “a historic action.” But according to the Conversation’s Michelle Grattan, a key factor was Parkinson’s earlier role as head of the Department of Climate Change.

Silence on the water

The first and most obvious transition from demanding information in opposition to containing it in government involved the contentious area of asylum-seeker policy. Immediately after the election, as Fairfax’s Dan Harrison reported, immigration minister Scott Morrison “stopped the practice of allowing officials to provide information to the media on boat arrivals in real time.” Instead, he began holding weekly briefings, and these were soon moved from Canberra to Sydney, making it harder for the Canberra press gallery to attend. On the Friday before Christmas, he told journalists at the briefing that it would be his last for the year, and that he would be issuing written statements instead. In the Christmas–New Year break, reported the Guardian, “Morrison’s spokesman refused to confirm whether these weekly briefings would continue after the holiday period.” Later it was announced that Morrison had abandoned regular briefings and would now only make ad hoc appearances.

Morrison not only reduced opportunities for the media to interrogate him, he also frequently declined to answer the questions they did get a chance to ask. His rationale for silence lay in the military rhetoric with which the government framed its policy. Controlling information in order to deny people smugglers the opportunity to use that knowledge is “not uncommon with military-style operations,” he said soon after the election. It wasn’t the government’s job “to run a shipping news service” for people smugglers. “The battle is being fought using the full arsenal of measures,” he assured parliament. The navy, which was conducting what the government called Operation Sovereign Borders, said that it, too, could not discuss “on-water” matters. The definition of “on-water” matters has proved to be enormously elastic.

The government has used the military not just to carry out policy but also “as a political shield,” argues Michelle Grattan. Military personnel refused to tell the Senate what training they had received, because that would involve revealing “on-water” matters. Nor would they reveal whether their vessels had GPS devices; to do so would be inconsistent with “the information requirements across the battle space,” according to defence force chief David Hurley, and would constitute information “likely to be sought by adversary intelligence elements.” Gallery reporter Bernard Keane judged “the evasion, casuistry and outright refusal of officials to allow any aspect of Operation Sovereign Borders to be scrutinised, no matter how far removed from ‘on-water operations’” to be “a new low in Australian government transparency.”

The military’s intransigence in the Senate culminated in a frustrated shadow defence minister Stephen Conroy haranguing General Angus Campbell. “You can’t tell the Australian public the truth because you might upset an international neighbour,” he charged during a Senate estimates hearing. “That’s called a political cover-up.” Conroy invoked the Tom Cruise–Jack Nicholson exchange in the movie A Few Good Men: “You want the truth. You can’t handle the truth.” In this spectacularly counterproductive move, Conroy turned the spotlight from the military onto himself, and a chorus cried for him to apologise or resign.

But Conroy’s anger may have played a role in forcing the military to reveal that personnel involved in Operation Sovereign Borders had been excused from key clauses of the Work Health and Safety Act, which requires workers to take reasonable care of their own and of others’ wellbeing. The government argues that this is justified by the hazardous nature of the work they are doing – even though no such exemptions applied to Australian troops in Afghanistan and in operations against Somali pirates.

Making “stop the boats” the sole measure of policy success demands very focused public attention and highly circumscribed public sympathies. Information about Indonesia’s objections to Australia’s policy of intercepting boats at sea and towing them back to Indonesian waters creates unwelcome complexity. In combination with ludicrous and unsavoury spying by Australian intelligence, the government’s actions have brought the bilateral relationship with Indonesia to its lowest ebb since the Australian military was battling Indonesian-backed militias in East Timor in 1999.

Nor does the government want close scrutiny of how the boats are turned back. This is likely to be a much messier, and potentially nastier, process than the military jargon would suggest. On the few occasions when this process has attracted media attention – from the ABC and Fairfax, in both cases deriving from work done by their Jakarta-based correspondents – the government’s determination to shut the story down was evident. Ministers not only denounced the news organisations involved – the ABC is taking “everyone’s side but Australia’s” charged the prime minister – but refused to hold any inquiries. According to the Age’s Michael Gordon, “no attempt” appeared to have been made “by Australian officials to interview those making claims.”

Sticking with the single goal of “stop the boats” also involves drastically restricting information about what is occurring in the detention centres. “In line with its wider secrecy policy on border protection, the government is trying to suppress information about self-harm incidents,” reported Michelle Grattan. “Publicity only encourages such incidents, it says.” In late December, according to the Guardian’s Oliver Laughland, “Morrison was silent on a letter sent from fifteen doctors describing in chilling detail a raft of medical failings in detention centres on Christmas Island.” A Commonwealth ombudsman’s report in 2013 confirmed that detention for longer than six months has a significant impact on mental health.

The operation of all the detention centres, onshore and offshore, is outsourced. Transfield has a $1.22 billion contract to run the centres on Manus Island, which was formerly run by G4S, and Nauru. Beyond those facts, “Australia has deliberately cloaked its detention centre archipelago in so many layers of secrecy that we know almost nothing about what goes on there,” argued Jeff Sparrow in the Guardian. “The camps are the equivalent of private businesses remotely located in foreign countries, and everything about them is designed to frustrate journalists seeking to report on them.” The virtues of privatisation are usually presented in economic terms, but sometimes they have benefits for a government seeking to evade accountability. All staff for Serco, which controls the onshore detention centres, sign a confidentiality agreement.

There has been little first-hand reporting of what occurs in the camps. The UNHCR described “harsh physical conditions” that don’t meet “international standards” on Nauru, but foreign minister Julie Bishop praised the conditions and said they were “certainly better than in Australian mining camps.” The government blocked a proposed visit by the Human Rights Commission to check on child asylum seekers in Nauru on the grounds that the “commission’s jurisdiction did not extend beyond Australia’s borders.” Nauru itself raised the price of a journalistic visa from $200 to $8000, and the fee is non-refundable even if the visa application is rejected.

The lack of independent access became an even more urgent issue after riots at the Manus Island detention centre on 18 February left one asylum seeker, Reza Berati, dead and another seventy-seven injured. Scott Morrison and G4S initially alleged that the killing and most of the violence took place outside the compound, despite reports to the contrary. “If people chose to remove themselves from that centre then they are obviously putting themselves at a place of much great risk…” Morrison said. “I can guarantee their safety when they remain in the centre and act cooperatively with those who are trying to provide them with support and accommodation…”

At nine o’clock on the following Saturday night, however, Morrison issued a media release revealing that his comments had been wrong. His most explosive admission was that most of the violence probably took place “within the perimeter of the centre.” At a hastily convened press conference in Sydney the following day, he said he had only found out the full facts on the Saturday, and so had sent out the correction that night. Both Australia and Papua New Guinea launched inquiries into the violence, although the governments agreed that only a “merged” report would be published. Despite the remarkable reversal, prime minister Abbott defended Morrison’s handling of the Manus Island incident with the words, “You don’t want a wimp running border protection.”

A PNG Supreme Court judge, David Cannings, then initiated an inquiry into human rights on Manus Island. To the annoyance of both governments, he took along journalists and observers when he visited the detention centre in mid March. One of them commented that although he had read every report on conditions there, he “was still absolutely shocked and confronted by what I saw… chronic overcrowding… poor toilet and sanitation facilities.” With the support of the Australian government, the PNG government decided to stop the judge’s inquiry. It also denied access to a human rights lawyer wanting to visit the centre.

Morrison’s combination of belligerence and ineptitude would be politically damaging in almost any other policy area. Instead, the Liberal Party room sees him as a hero. Asked about future leadership of the party, he said he was “up for any challenge” and found such speculation “encouraging and flattering.” Attorney-general Brandis described him as one of the stars of the government.

Green information blackout

Although Tony Abbott campaigned long and hard against that “toxic tax,” Labor’s carbon-pricing scheme, he also says that he recognises the reality of human-induced climate change. But it is notable that he always restricts his expression of that belief to a single sentence, without elaborating on what convinced him of its reality, or exploring with any urgency its causes and consequences.

Whether or not Abbott really does believe in anthropogenic climate change, it is “extraordinary,” according to Professor Ross Garnaut, that the four business leaders the government has appointed to senior advisory roles – Dick Warburton on the inquiry into renewable energy, David Murray on the financial system inquiry, Maurice Newman to chair the PM’s Business Advisory Council, and Tony Shepherd to head the Commission of Audit – all share a strong view that the science on climate change is wrong.

Since the election, writes leading business journalist Giles Parkinson, the government has sought to close or reduce funding to many of the agencies whose work relates to climate change. Its first, and highly symbolic, move was to disband the Climate Commission, whose main purpose was to communicate facts about climate change to the public.

Its next target, the Climate Change Authority, might prove more difficult to get rid of. As a statutory agency established by parliament, it can’t simply be closed. “The CCA was intended to be a non-partisan, expert body,” wrote New Matilda’s Ben Eltham, “a little like the Reserve Bank or the Productivity Commission, that would review the best available scientific and economic evidence and recommend a consensus position on Australia’s carbon reduction targets.” When it handed down its report on how Australia should address global warming – by cutting emissions to 19 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 – environment minister Greg Hunt didn’t hold any sort of event to mark the report’s release. He simply issued a media release, full of misleading statistics and claims, whose key point was to rehash Coalition criticisms of Labor’s carbon tax.

Earlier, the Climate Change Authority’s review of Labor’s renewable energy scheme had concluded that the current targets should be kept. Although it had the statutory obligation to undertake the next review, the government moved quickly to appoint its own inquiry. Its members included a climate change denier, a fossil-fuel lobbyist and the former head of a coal-and-gas generation company, all with an “antipathy to renewable energy,” according to Parkinson.

Environmentalists’ fears that this inquiry was set up to reach a predetermined conclusion were strengthened by the government’s rapid moves to cut funding in this area. The budget recommended the abolition of the $3.1 billion Australian Renewable Energy Agency, or ARENA, an institution formed to help bring new technologies into production and deployment, and to fund Australia’s world-leading solar research. While it retained funding to meet its existing contracts, it had almost no funds to enter into any new agreements. Abolishing ARENA requires Senate approval.

The most tangible effect of these measures is to dampen activity in the area. But they will also minimise the flow of information about climate change and policy responses. The government’s resolve even extends to organisational names: the Australian Cleantech Competition was renamed Australian Technologies Competition, and the words climate, clean energy, or clean tech are considered non grata.

Unusually, Australia was not represented at ministerial level at the UN climate summit in Warsaw in November, which was working towards the global agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Australia’s recent performance and changes drew some criticism at the meeting. The government also decided not to send a representative to the World Bank–supported Partnership for Market Readiness assembly, despite the fact that Australia had previously co-chaired three assemblies. Some EU diplomats have criticised Australia for “not including environment issues on the G20 conference it is hosting later this year,” reported Parkinson.

Unhealthy secrecy

A bizarre and politically counterproductive case of the government blocking transparency in order to cater to narrow vested interests involved taking down a new healthy food ratings website, which had been two-and-a-half years in the making. The site, endorsed by Choice, the Heart Foundation and various health organisations, was designed to help consumers make informed choices using information about saturated fat, total sugar, sodium, fibre, protein, and fruit and vegetable content. The Ministerial Council had voted its approval in December, and all public stakeholder groups had been told the website was about to be published.

On the same the day the site was launched, however, it was taken down on the order of the assistant health minister Fiona Nash, and the public servant who had been leading the project, Kathy Dennis, was redeployed. Nash’s justification shifted over subsequent days. First, she claimed the website had been suspended because it had been launched prematurely. Later, she cited the Ministerial Council’s decision to undertake a cost–benefit analysis as the reason, despite the fact that the minutes of the meeting showed the Council wanted the website to proceed.

It was revealed that the Food and Grocery Council had opposed the star rating system, and its CEO had contacted Nash’s office the day it was put up. Sixty-six public health professors from around the country signed a letter to the health ministers calling on them to reinstate a healthy-food star rating system, saying health problems posed by obesity needed urgent action.

The controversy escalated sharply in the following days when it was revealed that Nash’s chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, who had been centrally involved in the decision to close the site, had been a partner in a lobbying company that worked for the junk food industry. The hapless Nash told parliament, “There is no connection whatsoever between my chief of staff and the company Australian Public Affairs.” In fact, he had a half interest in the firm with the other half owned by his wife, and he had failed to declare conflicts of interest at relevant meetings. It was reported that the firm’s clients included Kraft, Cadbury and the Australian Beverages Council.

Eventually, on 14 February, Furnival resigned. He left Nash’s office, he said, to avoid the “political distraction” of the “smear campaign” against him, but continued to insist there had been no conflict of interest. Of course, there were News Corp columnists ready to spring to the government’s defence. For Nick Cater, the episode represented “a pattern of blatant defiance by bureaucrats that requires a tough minded ministerial response.”

While the closing of the website received considerable publicity, another move received less. Without warning, the government decided to abolish the Alcohol and Drugs Council of Australia, the most important agency in this area, ending a history of almost fifty years. Furnival also had links to the alcohol industry, and played a key role in defunding the council, which costs between $1.3 million and $1.6 million a year. Its chair, former Liberal MP Dr Mal Washer, said he had contacted Senator Nash’s office about the decision on several occasions, but had only been able to speak to Furnival. “Normally when you contact them, they will have a yarn with an ex-federal colleague,” said Washer. “There was no reason given [by Furnival] for the cut except for ‘We don’t have enough money and have a nice day.’” Washer called it a dumb decision and “a bloody tragedy.”

Seeking information on the decision, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education put in an FOI request, which was denied on the grounds it was “not in the public interest.” The foundation then accused the government of an “appalling level of transparency.” “Included in the list of unreleased documents are representations from more than 200 individuals and groups that have contacted the government to express concern,” reported Fairfax’s Amy Corderoy. Nash refused a request to meet with a delegation of representatives of drug and alcohol bodies to discuss a way forward after the foundation’s axing.

Abbott expressed confidence in Nash. “With the staff member now departed,” he added, “the matter has concluded.” Although she had misled parliament, and displayed a worryingly uncertain grip on her portfolio, she survived because of that time-honoured tenet of cabinet government, never give a scalp to the other side.

Another surprise decision came in the May budget, when the government abolished the Australian National Preventive Health Agency and absorbed its functions back into the department. This brought to three the number of decisions that deprived consumers of officially generated sources of information about health issues.

Opaque advice

Paul Keating introduced compulsory superannuation in 1992 as a means of coping with the financial challenges of an ageing society and spreading the benefits of income security associated with retirement savings to all sectors of the workforce. Currently, employers must contribute 9.25 per cent of an employee’s salary to a superannuation fund. As of 2013, the system had created a pool of $1.7 trillion in savings, more than 100 per cent of GDP.

Managing these funds has become a major industry. According to figures released by the Labor government, 18,000 financial advisers or planners give advice to one-in-five Australians, with four in every five advisory firms either owned by or affiliated with the major banks. Last year, $23.6 billion was syphoned out of the compulsory super system in fees. The Grattan Institute released a report in April concluding that superannuation fees in Australia were around 50 per cent – or in total $10 billion a year – higher than they should be, and that the fee structures eat into savings, leaving superannuees with 20 per cent less retirement income than they would otherwise have. “Last year the big four banks generated more than $2.6 billion through their so-called wealth management arms,” reported Fairfax’s Georgia Wilkins. “Much of this – particularly relating to insurance – was sold through bank branches, while customers were inquiring about another product.”

Labor introduced “a raft of consumer protections,” wrote Michelle Grattan. “Advisers must act in their client’s best interest. They have to get clients to ‘opt in’ every two years to continue to receive their service. Annual statements disclosing fees and details of services performed are required. ‘Conflicted remuneration’ is banned – for example, commissions paid by product advisers to financial advisers.”

The Coalition came to government committed to reversing some of those reforms. The main changes championed by assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos included scrapping the two-year opt-in for financial planning clients, and again allowing commissions and other conflicted remuneration for “general advice” while continuing to ban them for “personal advice.” The proposed changes would have narrowed the obligation for the financial planner to act in the client’s best interests, and removed the obligation for clients who began before Labor’s reforms were introduced to receive an annual disclosure of fees charged.

The main winners from these changes would have been the big four banks and AMP, who had previously dominated the financial advice market. The changes would have allowed the reintroduction of commissions and reinstituted the gravy train of trailing commissions, which are typically worth 0.5 per cent of the funds under management. As the fund grows, and contact with the planner recedes into the past, the payments get bigger. Meanwhile, the client is paying an annual fee to the fund for actually managing the money. Providing one statement a year was considered too onerous, commented the Age’s economics editor Peter Martin, “even though it’s probably the least that could have been expected from a planner who actually was providing on ongoing service.” Clients are not reminded that “trailing commissions” on their investments are still going to the person who signed them on, and many contributors end up paying hundreds of dollars every single month for little discernible service.

The greatest reaction centred on the reintroduction of commissions. ASIC, the financial services watchdog, said: “Remuneration structures used in the financial advice industry create real and potential conflicts of interest that can distort the quality of advice.” These are often not evident to consumers, and the only way to deal with the problem is to remove the remuneration structures that give rise to these conflicts. As leading business journalist Alan Kohler argued, “The fundamental problem is that the term ‘sales’ is simply incompatible with the word ‘advice,’ and can never be reconciled. When someone goes to a financial planner seeking advice, they are not expecting to be sold something instead.”

Perhaps recognising that it would be a hard argument to sell to the public, the Sinodinos strategy was to “try to do as much as possible by regulation rather than legislation and sneak a package out over summer in the hope that it would garner as little attention as possible,” wrote Crikey’s Bernard Keane. He made his first move on Friday 20 December, but a backlash gradually developed despite the timing.

Groups including National Seniors, the Council on the Ageing, Choice and Industry Super Australia came out in opposition in early 2014. The Financial Planning Association, which had supported the Coalition’s proposals before the election, said it was opposed to the reintroduction of commissions under the general advice exemption. Industry Super Australia urged the government to retreat because “the risks are too great.” “Both National Seniors Australia and the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association of NSW weren’t merely concerned about the FOFA repeal,” reported Keane, “they had actually launched campaigns against it.” Important parts of the business press, guided by the precept that the best market is the best-informed market, savaged it.

As the scale of opposition became clearer, there were rumours that the government would move by regulation rather than legislation. But Industry Super Australia presented legal advice to the government that if it moved to institute changes by regulation rather than legislative change, they would be invalid and susceptible to challenge in the courts. The government said it was still intent on legislating the changes, but froze its plans to implement them immediately, saying it wanted further consultation.

In March and April, it had tried to paint the changes as part of its push to abolish red tape. “Regulation suppresses innovation, raises consumer prices, ties the sector down in compliance costs, and opens up opportunities for rent-seeking,” argued one of its proponents, the Institute of Public Affairs’ Chris Berg. It is not only wrong to state this as a universal truth, but in the case at hand the reverse is true. The Labor regulations reduced the scope for rent-seeking, and by opening up the market would have encouraged innovation, and certainly lowered costs and provided better service for consumers. As Kohler commented, “banning sales commissions and other conflicted remuneration to financial planners was never a red tape burden – it was the outlawing of a corrupt practice that has cost consumers billions of dollars and lowered trust in the entire financial advice industry.”

Echoing Berg, Sinodinos argued that Labor’s measures, introduced in the wake of the Storm Financial Crash in early 2009, were “unwieldy, burdensome and unnecessarily complex,” a considerable exaggeration of the regulatory burden. “No amount of regulation can prevent another financial collapse,” he went on. “You can never regulate away all risk. Neither our reforms nor Labor’s can prevent a possible future financial collapse.” At one level this is a truism. But the global financial crisis, which was triggered by problems in the American housing market, was fundamentally caused by a lack of transparency: investors didn’t know what debts they were taking on because financial institutions had become very sophisticated at hiding their liabilities. Transparency is a precondition of a well-functioning market; if the Sinodinos reforms succeed, Australian consumers will have less transparency and less capacity to make informed decisions.

More red tape rather than less

Another pre-election promise made in the name of cutting red tape was to abolish the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission, or ACNC, set up by the Labor government in 2012. Two years earlier, the Productivity Commission had concluded that “there is an urgent need to bring together the multiplicity of governance, taxation and fund-raising arrangements, especially at the Commonwealth level. While reducing compliance costs is one motivation, improvements in the regulatory regime are important for maintaining trust in the fidelity and integrity of the not-for-profit sector.”

The not-for-profit sector has an estimated annual revenue of $100 billion, and many argued that its special nature needed its own regulator, which would bring greater accountability, transparency and efficiency. In its first sixteen months the ACNC received 1.3 million visits to its website, registered 3000 organisations, received 686 complaints of which 272 warranted investigation, and had 400,000 visits to its register of organisations.

Abolishing the national body would mean a return to the previous regulatory maze at state and federal level. Rather unusually, the great bulk of the sector supports the ACNC. “Last year, a survey by Pro Bono Australia found that of 1500 stakeholders surveyed, about 80 per cent supported the ACNC,” reported Fairfax’s Judith Ireland. More than forty charitable organisations, including several of the biggest, wrote an open letter to the prime minister asking that the government scrap its plan to abolish the commission, saying that it has won the confidence of the sector and its abolition would lead to more rather than less red tape. Very few argued for the abolition plan; notable among them was Cardinal Pell.

Given the extent of the opposition, social security minister Kevin Andrews’s determination to close the ACNC seems misguided, and is likely to be thwarted by the Senate. It is another case of the government acting in ways that would reduce the amount of information available to the public. Material published by the ACNC allows potential donors to make more informed decisions; as its senior officers told a Senate committee, scrapping it would undermine the public’s ability to track what the not-for-profit organisations are doing.

Checks and monitors

Although there is a bipartisan consensus about not commenting on intelligence and security matters, the Abbott government’s efforts in this area have been particularly absolutist and hamfisted. When Edward Snowden revealed that the Australian Signals Directorate had spied on Indonesian officials in trade talks over prawn exports, and had then offered the information to the US National Security Agency, who passed it on to interested US customers, Tony Abbott said, “We use [surveillance] for the benefit of our friends… to uphold our values… to protect our citizens… and certainly don’t use it for commercial purposes.” Given that its breach was apparent to all, this response was not only mendacious but silly.

One of the very few checks in this area is the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, which was set up to review Australia’s anti-terrorism laws. When it moved to abolish the office in March, the government argued that “all relevant legislation has already been reviewed.” But the key point of the Monitor is “to provide continuing review” of whether the legislation “remains proportionate to any threat of terrorism.”

The budget continues the trend

All governments engage in spin control for partisan benefit. They seek to contain negative news, working on the presumption that what they (members of the public) don’t know can’t hurt us (the government).

Among the telling omissions in this year’s budget papers was the data comparing Australia’s deficit and debt with those of other countries, presumably because it showed Australia in a relatively good position. All budgets since 2005, when Peter Costello introduced the practice, have included a table showing how different family types on different incomes will be affected by the spending and taxing decisions outlined. This year, that table was missing. On the spending side, the sharpest cut was to foreign aid. In the past, governments have released a “blue book” outlining precise aid allocations; this year, for the first time in much more than a decade, the document didn’t appear.

Similarly, all governments seek to manage the public agenda. The Abbott government’s efforts to have as little attention to climate change issues as possible are an extreme case of agenda management, but far from unique. In the quest for electoral advantage, and to promote its policy priorities, it directs the public spotlight towards some issues and away from others. Thus, it mounted a very high-profile Commission of Audit to highlight where it thinks government spending should be cut. It was less keen to identify gaps in revenue. Shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh criticised the government’s decision to abolish Labor’s tax transparency reforms “which would have ensured the public could see how much tax Australia’s largest companies are paying.” Leigh argued that Labor had required 200 of Australia’s largest firms to disclose their total income, taxable income and tax paid and this would now cease. He quoted assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos as saying, “We don’t want to get into a situation where we’re putting more and more information out there.”

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.

The budget also foreshadowed the privatisation of the ASIC register. As Paddy Manning pointed out in Crikey, of the two million companies in Australia only 2000 are listed on the ASX and subject to continuous disclosure obligations. Information about the rest can only be unearthed through searches of the ASIC registry. A typical search now costs between $20 and $50, and makes a tidy profit for ASIC. A privatised registry could use its monopoly to raise prices, making public scrutiny more expensive.

Cutbacks elsewhere in the public sector will impinge negatively on public knowledge. Treasury, according to its secretary, Martin Parkinson, will lose one in three of its staff because of funding cuts, and staff will also be reduced at the Tax Office. Cutbacks like these are unlikely to cause much public outcry, but they are also unlikely to help economic policy-making or maintain a more durable revenue base. Up to 1000 science and research jobs are also at risk; the CSIRO is the hardest hit, with 420 further jobs scheduled to be lost, in addition to 300 already cut.

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. *

This article has been amended to correct the name of the alcohol and drugs body abolished by the government.