Head-to-head: should Australians have access to all government-held information?

Purple 28 Sep 2020
3 mins
Image of colleagues going head-to-head for a debate about right to access government information

International Access to Information Day is held on 28 September every year and recognises the community’s right to access government-held information.

This year, the focus will be on the right to information during times of crisis and on the advantages of having constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information to save lives, build trust and help the formulation of sustainable policies throughout and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

The community’s right to access government-held information is a multi-faceted and complex issue, so we have enlisted Purple’s Director, Design and Digital, Jamie Wilkinson and Associate Director, Government Relations, Jennifer Kirk to go head-to-head to delve into the topic a bit further.

Should Australians have access to all government-held information? Associate Director, Government Relations, Jennifer Kirk says no…

Transparency of government processes and public accountability are important characteristics of participatory democracy in Australia. Factual information collected at the taxpayers expense should generally be made available to the public to use.

Now more than ever, access to clear, objective, numerical data on the growth and characteristics of our population, economic performance, health and wellbeing and the condition of our surrounding environment is crucial. Access to this data allows us to assess whether policy decisions are evidence-based and helps us to establish benchmarks to monitor and evaluate the progress of those decisions.

However, when it comes to advice based on opinion and judgement intended to inform deliberative decisions on policy, there needs to be a different approach.

Governments need to maintain a degree of confidentiality in the policy-making process. It is in the public interest that they make themselves as well-informed as possible in carrying out this role.

Therefore, the policy advice they receive needs to be honest and impartial, so that the decisions they make are with a full understanding of all the facts and all the risks. Often this means telling ministers things that they may not wish to hear, but of which they need to be aware.

The FOI laws present a significant barrier to this frank and fearless written advice. It is far more difficult to be frank about politically sensitive policy matters when there is a real risk that the advice will become publicly accessible and splashed on the front page of newspapers.

If confidentiality is not assured, public servants can be tempted to moderate their advice and only provide it orally. Worse still, ministers may opt to stop requesting advice from their departments altogether, leaving them uniformed when making major policy decisions, all to avoid public scrutiny.

Which leaves me with this question, isn’t it far better to have a deliberative document that fully informs the government held confidentially, than for it not to exist at all?

Meanwhile, Director, Design and Digital, Jamie Wilkinson says yes…

If we remove the financial responsibility argument (that it’s our taxes which pay for the work of a government, so we have a right to know what’s being done with it), one of the fundamental tenets of governments is that they are acting in our name.

With that comes a responsibility for public accountability, of equal treatment for all, and of being above corruption. Without the right to examine and test how government works, it’s increasingly difficult for citizens to hold it to account and ensure that they are doing what they were voted in to do.

There are democracies around the world headed by politicians who are not just economical with the truth, but downright stingy. Facts have become matters of opinion in public debate, and so now more than ever we need access to data and information which give a free press a fighting chance to keep the electorate informed.

There are already reasonable exemptions in place to protect documents relating to national security, Cabinet work, and material gained in confidence, but despite that, the proportion of government FOI refusals has increased in recent years to the highest level ever, effectively reducing the transparency of our elected officials and their work.

Wouldn’t we prefer to have governments which aren’t afraid of showing their working out, and which keep voters informed and engaged than to increase the layers of secrecy and unaccountability we’re seeing elsewhere in the world?

Purple Director of Design and Digital Jamie Wilkinson is an expert in proactively preparing communications strategies to respond to data breaches and managing communications during a data breach crisis. Email  Jamie. 

Jennifer Kirk is an Associate Director in Purple’s Government Relations team and spent more than seven years in Canberra working for the Commonwealth Department of Finance, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Commonwealth Treasury. If you need help mapping out your government engagement, contact Jennifer.

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