What’s with all the state secrets? I’m the first to say the state government has done a good job keeping us safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. But I’m growing increasingly uneasy about the secrecy and defensiveness of those in charge, especially now when the government has enormous power and a heavy hand on our daily lives and freedoms. Remember Tasmanians have given the government their trust and are relieved and grateful there has so far been no second wave of coronavirus. But trust is a twoway street, and the government needs to start trusting Tasmanians and opening itself up to scrutiny.
It feels like every other day this newspaper is highlighting reports the government won’t release. For example $300,000 of taxpayers’ money has been spent investigating the feasibility of a new coeducational high school in Hobart. But despite repeated requests the Education Department has refused to share the study with the public and even knocked back my Right to Information request, listing 33 documents not for release. Is public education really the stuff of state secrets?
Also this month we learned of another feasibility study the government will not make public, this time a $762,000 look at a western city bypass road to ease congestion in Hobart. Funded by us, but deemed not for our eyes. Both have enormous public interest but both are secret. This just creates a perception of a government with something to hide.
ABC investigative reporter Steve Cannane hit the brick wall of secrecy when he tried to find out more about the Tasmanian government’s controversial poker machine policy. In April he tweeted his frustration: “You want to know how secret the business of gambling policy is in Tasmania? I put in a Right to Information request into the Tas. Dept. of Treasury about any social or economic modelling they might have done into the proposed new poker machine licence.
Treasury identified 34 relevant documents. All apparently exempt in their entirety.”
Then there’s the terrible business of secret political donations in Tasmania. We have the worst political donation laws in Australia and the 2018 state election campaign was awash with gambling money.
Acknowledging the public unease, then premier Will Hodgman promised donations reform after the election and called for submissions, but new Premier Peter Gutwein has back-pedalled. The Liberals spent a record $4 million to get back into power in 2018. But, in Tasmania, only donations of more than $14,000 are declared so the public still has no idea who funded the lion’s share of the Liberals’ election campaign.
States elsewhere require donations of more than $1000 to be declared within a week to three weeks. The government has completed a report on reforming political donations, but it’s been kept secret. Oh the irony.
This is not a government that welcomes scrutiny or promotes transparency. This was on show when the Premier went on the offensive to defend travel and quarantine exemptions given to tradies from interstate to build a hotel in Hobart owned by a Liberal donor. The media legitimately had questions but the Premier demanded they stop the “witch hunt”. He has shown a similar thin skin when questioned in state parliament.
Infrastructure Minister Michael Ferguson has also resorted to personal attacks in the face of scrutiny. His target was civil liberties campaigner Richard Griggs whose crime was to organise a petition to highlight concern about the government sending Tasmanian driver’s licence photos to a national facial recognition database that does not exist yet. Mr Ferguson took the extraordinary step of writing on his government letterhead to every person who signed the petition and tearing strips off Mr Griggs.
The government has great power right now. The borders are shut and there have been choppers in the sky, road blocks and people prevented from visiting sick relatives and travelling to the funerals of relatives. With great power comes great responsibility.
It’s time the government shifted tack and embraced transparency and scrutiny.
Otherwise it risks eroding the trust it has won from Tasmanians through its handling of the health emergency.
Talking Point published in the Mercury.