Transparency means nothing without justice
The footage of police action at last summer's Climate Camp – and the lack of response since – demonstrates the limits of a cyber-liberty dream
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 29 April 2009 12.57 BST
An activist is arrested as others participate in a march towards Kingsnorth power station from the Camp For Climate Action 2008. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty
We cyber-liberties types are very big on government transparency – on the right to carry our cameras into every altercation with authority and to put it all online. We make the problems visible, hoping that this will solve them. Little brother watches back!
Transparency is indeed a virtue in government. Knowing what MPs and cops and regulators are up to is a vital precursor to doing something about it. That's why people in authority naturally shy away from transparency.
That's the reason for Gordon Brown's proposal to make MPs' expense accounts into a state secret, immune from Freedom of Informationrequests, and the frankly insane new law that makes it illegal to photograph a copper, a soldier, or many public buildings if these photos could be used "in preparation of an act of terror".
April 03, 2009
Bureaucrats who set out to thwart FOI requests break the law
THE inquiry by NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour into the Roads and Traffic Authority's management of Freedom of Information applications has pinpointed important issues that have long concerned The Australian in relation to all levels of government. Mr Barbour has sent his report to the NSW corruption watchdog, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, because he is concerned that potentially corrupt practices deliberately thwarting FOI requests may extend to the "entire public sector". If so, those responsible are breaking the law.
At the root of the problem is a culture of secrecy in which too many bureaucrats and politicians regard the public and the media as burdensome, meddling pests when exercising their rights to know more about how taxpayers' money is spent or why government decisions were made. The RTA's costly legal smokescreens, including engaging a lawyer on a $640,000 12-month contract, were exposed after The Daily Telegraph complained about its handling of requests for data on matters as basic as travel times and potholes.
Secrecy has been on the rise in NSW for years. A recent survey of more than 100 departments and agencies by the ombudsman found that refusals of FOI applications had increased by 18 per cent in recent years.
The culture of secrecy is also deeply entrenched in other jurisdictions. The Brumby Government has resorted to standover tactics, threatening to prosecute a Coalition staffer pursuing an FOI request about water. The federal Treasury, under the Howard government, blocked this newspaper's pursuit of data on bracket creep and the first-home buyers' scheme.
Much remains to be done, but the Rudd Government is moving forward in honouring its promise to transform the federal public service's culture of secrecy into one of disclosure. Special Minister of State John Faulkner has announced an overhaul of FOI laws that will allow the public greater access to information online.