Premier’s department a ‘safe space’ from accountability

South Australia’s central bureaucracy is using extraordinary and spurious arguments to avoid transparency and accountability, argues Rex Patrick.

May 14, 2024, updated May 14, 2024
The Premier's department has made a "safe space" claim to defy an FOI request. Digitally altered image: James Taylor/InDaily

The Premier's department has made a "safe space" claim to defy an FOI request. Digitally altered image: James Taylor/InDaily

Everything the SA Government does, it does on your coin and for public purpose. Put slightly differently, SA ministers and public officials work for you. The documents they generate as they govern are your documents.

Sadly, that’s often forgotten in the hallways of power and in the upper echelons of the public sector. People who’ve worked their way up through a political party or through the public service don’t really want to be too bothered by pesky citizens.

They go about their business doing what they think is best, announcing their plans and decisions along the way. Participation and scrutiny by the public is not really that welcome. To assist them in that endeavour they like to exercise strict control over information, releasing it at a time and in a form that best suits them.

That brings me to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made last month, seeking access briefings that the Department of Premier and Cabinet had provided to Premier Peter Malinauskas on AUKUS.

I wasn’t after any briefings that gave details of the depth the Virginia Class submarines dive to, or the latency between turning the reactor dials and a commensurate speed change at the propulsor; rather, I was after information related to SA’s support for the program.

I was advised there were 16 documents had been provided to the Premier. But not one paragraph, not one sentence, not one word of those documents was to be released to the public.

A number of the documents were related to an agreement between the Federal and State governments (both of whom work for us) for the swap of 64 hectares of state land at Osborne in exchange for Keswick Barracks and 15,000 hectares of Defence Department land north of Whyalla.

Hardly top-secret stuff.

The reasons the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) gave for the access refusal were extraordinary.

DPC advised that: “The disclosure of these documents has the potential to inhibit frankness and candour in such future communications between a Minister’s office and the agency.”

The public might expect well-paid officials inside government to always give frank, honest and fearless advice to the Premier, despite the fact it might be disclosed.

In fact, SA law requires that they do so: between the Public Sector Act, the Public Sector (Honestly and Accountability) Act and the Code of Ethics for the SA Public Sector they have no choice but to be professional and transparent. The FOI Act lives in harmony with the various public sector legislation.

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In refusing access to a draft document, DPC also stated, “it is important that drafts of such documents can be deliberated on in a consultative manner without the prospect of these decisions being made public.” In other words, only final documents should be released to the public – after a decision has been made and presented to the public as a fait accompli. Citizens need not engage in government – that might look too much like we’re in a democracy.

The most extraordinary statement in the decision was a statement that “the need for a safe space to consider options without fear of this advice being made public” outweighed “the public interest for there to be transparency regarding the operations of government and transparency of decision-making”.

DPC was essentially saying that government officials need a place to go where they can be protected from transparency and accountability.

Information is the currency of power in a democracy. Only when you are fully informed with the latest information can you properly participate in government policy development and decision-making. Only when you have access to government and council information can you engage in scrutiny and assessment of governments and councils.

Transparency, through means like FOI, also acts as a deterrent to corrupt conduct.

One might expect that DPC, being the premiere department in the SA Government, would set the standard for all others. There is a clear failure in this regard.

As James Madison said back in 1822: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Premier Malinauskas would do well to explain to his very own department the need for openness and transparency and to further explain who they all work for.

In the meantime, I’ve appealed the access refusal decision.

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and Transparency Warrior who has made more than 600 FOIs.

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