Living in the time of the 24-hour news cycle, we’ve seen a growing reliance by governments on big political announcements – often with much fanfare but little substance or even follow-through.
And the rapid nature of the news cycle has led to a drop in the level of scrutiny of these announcements and decisions. The unfortunate result of this is growing secrecy around the workings of government and government decision-making .
That’s why the Right to Information Act is so vital to our democracy. The Act is not just intended to provide mechanisms for people to apply for public information – the spirit of the Act is that we should be living under a regime that progresses open government, proactively releasing as much information as possible.
But here in Tasmania, we are seeing the opposite. Since the Liberals came to power, we have seen a steady decline in the willingness of government, Ministers and the agencies they preside over to release information under Right to Information laws.
The Ombudsman’s recent annual report exposes Peter Gutwein as the most secretive Premier in the nation, confirming what the Tasmanian public has come to understand over the past seven years.
The Liberals have spent their time in office transforming us into the nation’s secret state – with an atrocious lack of transparency and a blatant disregard for the law that ignores the public’s fundamental right to government information.
The Ombudsman’s report clearly shows Tasmania has the poorest record in Australia of releasing information.
Thirty per cent of Right to Information applications received by public bodies in this state result in refusal to release any information at all. That is a staggering 750 per cent higher than other, more open Australian jurisdictions. Just to be clear, that is not a typo – Tasmania is 750 per cent worse than other states and territories.
Not only that, but nearly 100 per cent of the decisions that were appealed were overturned on review by the Ombudsman. And, as people grow increasingly fed up with the now near-reflex refusal to release information, the number of appeals keeps growing.
While Labor has supported the Minister’s addition of two more staff to deal with the backlog in the RTI jurisdiction of the Ombudsman’s office, it is disappointing to see that, rather than decreasing the backlog, it has grown even more.
It is not fair to characterise this as a failure of that office. The reason their workload has increased is the refusal of public agencies and public bodies to release information.
This broken process is well known by any member of the public who has tried to access information from this government using our RTI laws. The fact is the ministers in this government have created an expectation that when an RTI request arrives, as little information as possible should be released – the polar opposite of the spirit of the Act.
Labor has even produced evidence that RTI officers have asked Members of Parliament seeking information whether they have attempted to obtain it through the Government Media Unit.
That is completely inappropriate under any reading of the RTI Act. It effectively forces political interference in the RTI process.
The hallmark of Peter Gutwein’s government is to hide information and, in doing that, it has created an unacceptable culture of secrecy, particularly in relation to information that might be damaging to the government.
That’s not only undemocratic, it is deeply deceptive and underhanded.
We should be able to rely on our government to give Tasmanians access to as much information as possible, without the need to resort to RTI laws. But, in the absence of that transparency, those laws are there to ensure the public can get information it has a right to. Neither of these things happen under this government.
The RTI Act is intended to improve the operation of democracy by increasing the accountability of government to the people and by increasing the ability of people to participate in government decision-making.
The fact is our RTI laws are good. They are just not being adhered to by the Liberal government. The spirit of the RTI Act is integral to our democratic systems of government. Everything that happens under the RTI Act should be approached in that spirit.
Tasmanians should be able to trust their government and know that decision-making is above board and fully transparent. It is time that the Gutwein government cleaned up its act and gave Tasmanians the transparency they deserve.
Ella Haddad is the Shadow Attorney General
this article was originally published November 27, 2020