18/06/2008 - 22:00

We’re living in a state of secrecy

18/06/2008 - 22:00

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Thirty years ago, one of the governments headed by then premier Sir Charles Court adopted a state slogan - The State of Excitement - believing it represented what was then the mood in Western Australia.

Thirty years ago, one of the governments headed by then premier Sir Charles Court adopted a state slogan - The State of Excitement - believing it represented what was then the mood in Western Australia.

I've now forgotten who came up with this combination of words, which even appeared on vehicle number plates.

But it lingered for years, until an unknown minister finally ordered the number plate design changed.

The recent rumpus sparked by former Labor MP, one-time Labor Party state secretary, and now leading Perth lobbyist, John Halden's revelation that he's had secret cabinet decisions leaked to him suggests that an appropriate slogan for number plates today would be 'The State of Secrecy'.

These days, it seems, so much is treated as secret by government bureaucrats and their political bosses.

Starting at the top, there's the fact that cabinet decisions, for reasons best known to people long dead, tend to be kept under wraps.

Precisely why are cabinet decisions so shrouded?

One would have thought that, once cabinets decide on something, the first and best thing to do is immediately disclose it for everyone to know.

Surely the name of the game should be to tell Western Australians of decisions, rather than keeping them under wraps for goodness knows how long.

What's the rationale behind keeping cabinet decisions secret?

All that does is put a phoney and inflated price tag on such information, which lobbyists, like Mr Halden, can charge clients for.

State Scene believes that once cabinets decide something it should be immediately placed on a well-publicised website so anyone who wants to can get the details quickly.

Cabinet decisions shouldn't be secrets unless they're related to state security or life-threatening situations.

WA isn't a police state.

What thrill do ministers get from having their deliberations deliberately not disclosed?

Open and candid governance is what people should get, not secrecy.

And the reaction to Mr Halden's revelation that he's had decisions leaked to him ahead of time has had quite interesting consequences.

The state opposition, which clearly believes in secrecy, immediately called for the Crime and Corruption Commission to become involved.

Competitor lobbyists wondered why they've not been recipients of such tip-offs, and immediately felt disgruntled.

That contention should perhaps be qualified; other lobbyists are probably also receiving such leaks and charging for the information.

Journalists have theorised about what it was that was leaked, by whom, and why, and so on and so forth.

The easiest way to purge all unhealthy clandestine characteristics from government is to be open and candid, and to immediately disclose cabinet decisions.

Moreover, the state of secrecy that prevails in WA has led to some quite bizarre incidents.

In April, for instance, The Sunday Times' offices were visited by a police squad to purportedly locate cabinet documents. This was intended to help identify who provided a journalist at that newspaper with the quite innocuous information that Treasurer Eric Ripper wanted another $15 million or so for government advertising.

A good question here is why the government wanted to spend more on useless propaganda?

After all, it's taxpayers' money, isn't it? So surely we should, therefore, know.

However, that's not what the powers that be in the Department of Premier and Cabinet believe.

What amazes State Scene is that the story behind this hilarious affair of The Sunday Times raid has never been fully disclosed.

Since it's a newspaper I once worked at, I inquired about how that raid had gone, and quickly learned it was farce from start to finish.

Just before the raid began, another group of police had visited The Sunday Times to inquire about an entirely different matter; one that allegedly had absolutely nothing to do with cabinet secrets.

But shortly after, in came the cabinet secret leak-hunters. For a time, most in The Sunday Times were somewhat confused - two raiding parties, and at the one time

One group of policemen said they were there for one reason, another was there for quite another, tracing the leaked cabinet secret that had sprung some two months before.This was high farce.

Once one quick-witted journalist established what the second team was after, a telephone call was promptly made to the journalist who received the leak who, as things transpired, wasn't in the office at the time of the raid.

The first journalist warned the Times' man out on the road to stay away until the raid was over.

Anyone in the Department of Premier and Cabinet who thought the evidence they sought would be left lying around a newspaper office very long needs to have their head examined.

Police raids on newspaper offices are quite futile exercises because no journalist puts his latest cabinet leak into the top draw of his desk for police to find.

I'm sure the police fully realise this.

However, since their immediate superiors pass on information from some senior bureaucrats at the Department of Premier and Cabinet, the police simply abide by these reports and jump through the necessary hoops, knowing full well that such so-called raids are a total waste of time.

As if the police had nothing better to do.

Now, it should also not be forgotten that this state of secrecy prevails much further down the governmental chain.

Some years ago, State Scene was involved in a Freedom of Information inquiry because a government agency had done something to me that was highly unjust.

I'm unable to give details because the matter was resolved after three years of FOI requests and I was required to sign what's called a confidentially agreement as part of the process of bringing the matter to a more or less satisfactory finale.

Yes, more secrecy.

In this case that's meant protecting, forever, the two bureaucrats who perpetrated this injustice.

Although I'm basically satisfied with the outcome of that affair, the details are now permanently shrouded in secrecy. I'm never allowed to disclose the terms of that settlement.

Why? Simply because the secrecy ethic pervades at just about every level of governance.

Maybe WA truly is a state of secrecy.

Another thing that three-year ordeal taught me was that government agencies have access to their own taxpayer-funded lawyers, whereas citizens wanting to discover something affecting them will need to go to a lawyer and pay $250/hour.

What chance have citizens got under such unjustly stacked arrangement?

Every citizen should be able to access all information about themselves held by any bureaucracy except for a very small number of items dealing directly with policing, fraud, state security and criminality.

As for the rest, that should be fully and totally accessible to everyone at all times.

For those who believe that transparency currently prevails, try embarking on a FOI inquiry against a department or government agency and you'll quickly discover bureaucrats are experts at thwarting you for years.

Our party political machines and politicians talk about open government being the ideal. That's fine and rosy.

But when you lift the veil just slightly on the way things really operate you'll quickly discover you're living in the state of secrecy.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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