Right to Know: media freedom and Australian democracy are on the line

4 November 2019

Last week the front pages of Australia's major newspapers, including Australian Community Media mastheads The Canberra Times, Newcastle Herald, Illawarra Mercury and many others, were blacked out in a protest against the culture of government secrecy that's stifling public debate and the public interest.

For me, a crossbench senator who regularly wrestles with government secrecy through Freedom of Information applications, Senate committee inquiries and other processes to access official information, the redacted front pages looked all too familiar.

Huge blocks of black ink and very little information are all too often the outcomes of months of effort, litigation and hundreds of dollars devoted to FOI requests.
Time and time again I've encountered censorship, suppression, redaction, half-truths and sometimes outright falsehood as I've sought to extract information on everything from Australia's multi-billion-dollar defence programs to water allocations in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Ministers and bureaucrats live in fear that the release of information, anything other than the most innocuous disclosures and utterly anodyne statements, will cause political trouble that must be avoided. Sometimes they have much to hide.

Sometimes they just fear what they don't know.

Politics and bureaucratic timidity have made secrecy the default position at every level of government.

Triggered by last year's high-profile police raids on journalists and media organisations, the Australian media's Your Right to Know campaign is calling for a major shift away from excessive government secrecy and back towards the rights of the media, the parliament and the public to know the business of government. This change is sorely needed, because public's satisfaction with the way democracy works in Australia has crashed.

While many politicians are focused on Newspoll and other surveys of the ups and downs of partisan support, a more important story has been told by the joint research of the Trust and Democracy in Australia Project by the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra.

That work has progressively revealed the darkening mood of the Australian people with barely one in three voters saying they trust the federal government, and the majority of Australians saying they want a different political system.

Successive national surveys have shown public satisfaction with the way Australia's democracy works has fallen precipitously over the last decade.

In 2007, 86 per cent of voters were satisfied with Australia's democracy, but that figure dropped to 72 per cent by 2010 and then went into freefall from 2013, plummeting from 72 per cent to 41 per cent between 2013 and 2018.

Voter satisfaction with Australian democracy, as it is currently being practised, has more than halved in 10 years.

If nothing is done and the trend of the past decade continues, fewer than 10 per cent of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions by 2025 - a state of affairs that would unquestionably amount to a crisis in democratic legitimacy.

Meantime the steady growth of public dissatisfaction is reflected in keen support for measures such as a national Independent Commission Against Corruption.

That's another very important reform that must be implemented, but public support for creating such an institution is also another reflection of the deepening public distrust toward our government and parliamentary institutions.

It is perhaps no surprise that government secrecy has intensified over the past decade as public trust in government has declined.
Ministers and bureaucrats have reacted to the changing political climate by pulling down the shutters.

Routine government obfuscation has in turn driven public cynicism and a widespread belief that government is secretive, corrupt, ineffective and unable to advance the public good.

Urgent action is needed to break this vicious cycle of secrecy and distrust.

In this it's important to understand that the Your Right to Know campaign is not just about media freedom, it's about the fundamental underpinnings of Australia's democratic system.

And for that reason it can't be a one-week wonder, to be replaced in short order by another hashtag.

What is required is a sustained public campaign, directed at all parliamentarians and parties in the Federal Parliament, and at their state and territory counterparts, to get real commitments on protecting media freedoms, implementing FOI reform, reducing government secrecy and security classification, protecting whistleblowers, fixing our draconian defamation laws, and establishing a strong national anti-corruption body.

No one should take no, maybe or later as an answer.

In principle agreement isn't enough. Reforms should be adopted on a bipartisan basis in the life of the current parliament, and one would hope that all major parties go to the next Federal election with very clear commitments to wind back government secrecy and improve democratic openness and accountability.

It isn't just media freedom that's at stake; it's the health of Australian democracy that's on the line.

This piece was published by The Canberra Times on 4 November 2019.

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