Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 10:44 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 10:44 | SYDNEY

Secrecy and freedom (of information)


Graeme Dobell

This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

16 March 2012 10:52

This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

If secrets are government's attempt at monopoly, then FoI is about liberalisation and opening the market. The FoI experience in Australia illustrates why free trade so often wins in theory but has a hard time in reality. As the previous column argued, politicians and bureaucrats draw both power and control from maintaining their monopoly.

But surely, you say, it is politicians that have passed the FoI laws. Why would they fight against their own handiwork? The answer is that advances in FoI usually come with new administrations; the commitment to making government more open fades as the experience of government grows. To illustrate, here is a rant from Tony Blair's memoir:

Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it. Once I appreciated the full enormity of the blunder, I used to say — more than a little unfairly — to any civil servant who would listen: Where was Sir Humphrey when I needed him? We had legislated in the first throes of power. How could you, knowing what you know, have allowed us to do such a thing so utterly undermining of sensible government? Some people might find this shocking. Oh, he wants secret government; he wants to hide the foul misdeed of the politicians and keep from ‘the people’ their right to know what is being done in their name. The truth is that the FOI Act isn't used, for the most part, by 'the people'. It's used by journalists. For political leaders it's like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, 'Hey, try this instead', and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on 'the people'. It's used as a weapon.

But another and much more important reason why it is a dangerous Act is that governments, like other organisations, need to be able to debate, discuss and decide issues with a reasonable level of confidence. This is not mildly important. It is of the essence. Without that confidentiality, people are inhibited and the consideration of opinions is limited in a way that isn't conducive to good decision-making. In every system that goes down this path, what happens is that people watch what they put in writing and talk without committing to paper. It’s a thoroughly bad way of analysing complex issues.

The end bit is an almost reasoned discussion of the need for some secrecy in the discussion phase, if not the end phase, of a government process. But the stuff at the top is just a marvellous, almost glorious outpouring from a great media spinner who, at the end, could no longer either charm or cajole. Blair gives an unusually frank glimpse into the fears and insecurities that make even top politicians fret and froth.

This jeremiad against FoI comes from a leader who goes on to finish his book by arguing that the new divide in politics is not between left and right but 'open versus closed'. And progressives, Blair announces, must be champions of the open position. 

Apply that argument to information and government, not just trade and economics. FoI breaks down the secrecy culture and pierces the politicians' monopoly over information. Threaten any monopoly and you'll get a lot of rants about order in the market and efficient allocation of resources. The same logic applies to Blair's plea that governments can only be honest with themselves in secret.

In Australia, Labor's John Faulkner has laboured mightily to transform the Freedom-From-Information mentality to something that looks like a true FoI system. But with Faulkner gone from the front line, the secret squirrels can start munching at the edges again. 

The concealment instinct is deeply embedded and will continue to classify all sorts of papers as secret cabinet documents, argue that disclosure will impede government decision-making and harm the ability of the public service to function, or (the new beauty) should be withheld as 'commercial-in-confidence'. 

I suspect that dealing with the culture of secrecy is a generational fight. And we might have to wait for a generation that has grown up experiencing Moore's Law as the natural order of things to take their place on the commanding heights where the secrets live. If Moore's insight about the impact of ever cheaper, ubiquitous computing power is the natural state of your world, the closed and compartmentalised secrets domain can look most old-fashioned.