One of the threshold measures of a democracy is the openness of governments to scrutiny, but the long-term trend for trust in governments and democracy is grim.
Only 25 per cent of people have confidence in their political leaders, only 10 per cent believe that governments are run for 'all the people' and 56 per cent believe governments are run for 'a few big interests'.
During COVID trust figures jumped around a bit but are now back in decline as the idea of politicians following consistent national health advice unravels apace.
Simply understanding the many pivots and rule changes is a challenge exacerbated by the mystery of exactly who advice can be attributed to now it is clearly more than just 'health'.
In Tasmania a trend towards secrecy at the expense of open government has been the hallmark of governments in the state for many years and a major contributor to the lack of trust.
We have seen this most recently in Tasmania not just with COVID but also around the proposed Lake Malbena development and the Battery of the Nation.
Ruth Forrest MLC recently sought information on the Battery of the Nation and was given the brush off via the 'commercial in confidence' mantra followed by a 'trust us' from the government.
Ruth described this as a 'code of silence'.
Commercial in confidence is one of those phrases that has some logic but, alongside a raft of other logics (such as security, Cabinet in Confidence and more recently health advice), has been invoked at the whiff of any request for information.
Over the past 20 years governments have built up an array of legislative and administrative processes ostensibly to strike a balance between secrecy and openness.
The problem is that when you delve into the detail most of the focus seems to be on reasons to justify secrecy rather than promote openness.
More often than not the criteria for secrecy are vague and ill-defined.
For example commercial in confidence is a sweeping term that can be used to describe any engagement with the private sector, as distinct from specific harm to the idea of competition which ought to be the principle.
Our Tasmanian Audit Office lists some 17 categories of exemption to right to information and the Right to Information Act (2009) lists 25 matters 'Relevant to the Assessment of the Public Interest' and another raft of 'Matters Relevant to Assessment of Refusing Application'.
One of these is (Schedule 3 Section 1(i) ) "the extent of resources available to deal with the specified application".
So, at the end of the day if you can't find a better reason you can just argue you don't have the time or money to look into it.
Deep pockets alongside extraordinary patience and persistence are required if you choose to tackle this fortress of secrecy.
The private sector can hardly be blamed for not wanting to publicly discuss the risks and costs to taxpayers of their proposals although it would be good - in the spirit of corporate social responsibility - if they took a little more interest.
An example is the 2016 report The Federal Group commissioned on their economic contribution to Tasmania which has lots of terrific examples of direct and indirect economic contribution as well as social contributions.
Despite the study being based on input-output modelling the taxpayer input is not worthy of a mention.
I am still awaiting the companion report on economic, social and environmental costs to be commissioned, alongside the reports on the Lake Malbena proposal and the Battery of the Nation.
Since the private sector is rarely inclined to discuss risks and taxpayer burdens it amplifies rather than diminishes the onus on our elected representatives to delve into such matters.
But they seem to be fobbed off as well.
Both Lake Malbena and Battery of the Nation are essentially committing to a long-term utilisation of public assets for a mix of public and private benefits.
The policy reasoning about the principles at play, especially the benefit/cost equation for the Tasmanian public, should be clear.
The secrecy of silence smacks of a lack of willingness to engage in public discourse about matters of public policy importance.
The strongest correlation with trust in politicians is the ability to explain reasoning to others in terms of arguments about the public vs private interest.
COVID has led to even further secrecy with crucial life and death policy decisions (such as opening the borders) going nowhere near our Parliament or the people.
Again the essence of the issue is less whether the decision is right or wrong than gaining an understanding of the policy reasoning.
The future use value for our wilderness areas, the Battery of the Nation and COVID-19 are all important policy matters that will shape Tasmania's future.
In the place of a vibrant public debate encouraged by our government we have the sounds of silence.
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