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Academic calls for greater government transparency

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A Melbourne barrister has spoken of the need for Australians to have greater access to information and to fight back against government secrecy.

Speaking at Bond University’s inaugural Annual Public Lecture on Legal and Social Change for the Global and Comparative Law and Policy Network, Dr Kylie Weston-Scheuber outlined recent events which she said indicated a trend towards the withholding of information from the public.  

These included the secret trials of former ACT Attorney-General Bernard Collaery and “Witness J”, raids on journalists reporting in the public interest, and efforts by Professor Jenny Hocking to uncover the so-called “Palace letters” between former Governor-General Sir John Kerr and the Queen’s private secretary ahead of the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975.

Dr Weston-Scheuber supported three broad areas of reform to increase the flow of information drawing on recommendations referred to in a number of recent inquiries and reports.

To increase transparency, she referred to a need for a general repository recording relevant orders, be they closed court orders, suppression orders, or orders under the National Security Information Act.

”Even though it might not reveal the circumstances or what was prohibited from being published, at least we would know that those orders are being made and how many of them there are,” she said.

Dr Weston-Scheuber also supported calls for an increased focus on the potential for actual harm to be caused as a result of information being released.

“A move away from broad prohibitions and broad exemptions in the Freedom of Information (Act), and introducing a focus on harm…so that for example in Freedom of Information you wouldn’t just have a carve-out for intelligence information generally, you would be able to access that information unless it would be harmful to the public interest to do so.”

Review and reform of the existing orders and legislation governing freedom of information was also important.

“The time is ripe for a review of a number of these regimes, including suppression orders, the FOI Act, and another review of the Public Interest Disclosure Act.”

Public apathy was another obstacle which needed to be addressed.

“I think it’s easy to become blasé about matters of government secrecy. I think it’s easy for people like us to think that secrecy offences only really apply to people who are charged with terrorism and other related offences. But these provisions have a broader significance for all Australians because they determine how freely those who have access to information that we need are able to communicate it to us.”

There also needed to be a change in culture at governmental levels, Dr Weston-Scheuber said.

“If Australia is to be a truly representative democracy, then it’s vital that the people who are going to elect their representatives, have the necessary information to do that. And that includes having information about government wrongdoing and misconduct, and about behaviour that the government might generally like to keep secret from us. Because the fact that information might be embarrassing to the government can never be a justification for keeping it from the Australian people.

“Unless the disclosure of information truly would be prejudicial to the public interest, and there will be circumstances where that is the case, then law and official culture should be directed to ensuring that the free flow of information is protected as much as possible.”

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