Why Morrison’s culture of secrecy is so damaging

Aug 9, 2021
Scott Morrison secrecy
Image by Alex Anstey

As has been widely observed, Prime Minister Morrison is obsessed with secrecy. This obsession with secrecy damages both the policy capability of government and the integrity of public administration.

The Morrison Government has always had a very limited policy agenda – some have described it as a ‘policy vacuum’. Unfortunately, the signs are that the Labor Party is becoming similarly disposed to presenting a small target and eschewing any policy reform that might be controversial.

There are probably several reasons why today’s politicians find policy reforms so difficult to prosecute, but a central difficulty seems to be a rise in populism accompanied by a decline in trust by many electors in governments, politicians, and other experts.

Thus, a recent study by the Grattan Institute into policy gridlock found that ‘The increased influence of public attitudes on policy outcomes is perhaps the clearest and most substantial difference to the ‘golden age of reform’ [during the Hawke, Keating and early Howard years].’ In addition, the Grattan Institute further found that ‘In general Australian governments today seem less willing to take on public opinion.’

Of course, as the Grattan Institute study acknowledged: ‘In reality, liberal democracies are usually a delicate balance between popularly elected rulers and a whole series of institutions designed to temper their whims.’ Nevertheless, ‘it has been accepted constitutional theory for centuries that the primary duty of elected representatives is to govern according to their judgment of what is in the interests of their electors, rather than simply following the opinion of their electors.’

And ‘leaders can change public opinion – indeed that is an essential part of leadership.’

The Grattan Institute study of policy gridlock then goes on to discuss a number of institutional reforms to improve the policy-making capability. While they are all worthy, I think the central requirement is to change the political culture. We need to respond to the pressures that have led to populism and restore public trust in expert advice and evidence-based policies.

But the foundation for this trust is the provision of information that is evidence-based, in a form that is readily understood and is thus persuasive.

How information builds policy capability

The golden age of reform arose from a period of stagflation during the late 1970s and 1980s. At that time Australia, like other advanced economies, was experiencing both high inflation and high unemployment – an impossible combination according to the previous economic wisdom. No wonder the experts themselves were divided on solutions and governments were floundering with little progress towards the restoration of economic stability over a decade.

The solution according to the newly elected Hawke Labor Government in March 1983 was an incomes policy, based on the Accord, where employers and employees agreed on prices and incomes restraint along with a fair sharing of incomes.

But what was critical to the achievement of this agreement was a full sharing of all information.

That information sharing process started with a Summit of all the key economic and community representatives in the month following the election. In preparation for that Summit the Government decided to release the economic and budget forecasts, which before then had been kept secret. This decision was initially resisted by some of the key bureaucrats, not least because they saw their unchallenged control of these forecasts as a source of their power.

However, this sharing of information was critical to achieving agreement on the need for prices and income restraint and reassuring the parties that the burden was being fairly shared.

Furthermore, this information sharing was then further built on over time, and it provided the basis for what is now known as the ‘golden age of reform’. For example, it became clearer over time that wage restraint on its own would not stop Australia’s slide down the league table of economic performance and restore the competitiveness of the economy. That required reforms to improve productivity.

Equally, meeting the demands on the government budget was proving increasingly difficult. Instead, a culture that focussed on better targeting of assistance and better value for money was needed. The development of that culture was then encouraged by the requirement that (i) all programs would be evaluated every three years on a rolling basis, and (ii) the annual provision of information on program performance in the budget.

In short, policy capability depends first and foremost upon evidence-based information. In addition, the identification of what information is needed and then its provision will underpin the development of the necessary skill base and culture among the public service advisers and ministerial decision-makers. And finally, agreement to policy changes requires the sharing of information in a readily accessible form with the public if the nature of the present policy debate is to change and widespread agreement achieved.

But unfortunately, all that information is no longer available, and the Morrison Government has rejected the recommendations from the Thodey Review for its restoration. Clearly, Morrison thinks that neither his government, the Parliament, nor the public, need a better-informed economic and social policy debate.

On the other hand, Australian governments are generally perceived to have done much better in responding to the Covid pandemic; but this is precisely because most people have been prepared to accept the expert medical advice. Indeed, a recent cross-country study reported in The Conversation (3 August), found that ‘higher trust levels have been shown to be associated with markedly better outcomes in handling the virus’.

Right now, however, the public is becoming anxious and more aggravated about the uncertainty of the various lockdowns. In response, Morrison has recently announced a plan for when the lockdowns can be lifted, based on modelling by the Doherty Institute and the Treasury. However, this information was only made publicly available days after the plan was announced, and then in the form of slides at a press conference, which provided no opportunity for a sensible interrogation of the information.

This way of communicating with the public is typical of Morrison, but the risk is that it will never convince the sceptics. If the public is going to be persuaded to support policy changes, it will need more information than can be contained in a slide presentation and be given the opportunity to digest and debate the information in advance of final government decisions.

More generally, Morrison’s resistance to the provision of adequate information is why his government is likely to continue resisting policy reform unless it is unavoidable like the response to the pandemic. Morrison probably understands that unless he is prepared to provide adequate information, his government would only be setting itself policy targets that would be well-nigh impossible to achieve – a recipe for failure.

Integrity and accountability

The best way to maintain the integrity of public administration is the ability to hold ministers, their departments, and any other staff to account. And proper and full accountability rests very heavily on the provision of adequate information.

That is why we have freedom of information (FOI) legislation. But no government has done more to frustrate the intention of that legislation than the Morrison Government.

Documents are constantly being classified as Cabinet-in-confidence or commercial-in-confidence to avoid public scrutiny, even though they involve matters of considerable public interest, and especially in the case of commercial-in-confidence documents, often bear on the integrity of government administration.

Similarly, there is also mounting concern about whether the Morrison Government accepts its responsibility for the proper and accountable administration of public monies.

There are in fact legal requirements covering the spending of public monies as set out in the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability (PGPA) Act, and its associated rules and directions.

In particular, the key principles covering grants administration include:

  • ‘Achieving value with relevant money,
  • Governance and accountability, and
  • Probity and transparency.’

The guidelines make it clear that achieving these principles include the following requirements:

  • ‘the development of grant opportunity guidelines and associated operational guidance for administering grants on an ongoing basis’,
  • ‘effective design and selection processes’ and that ‘competitive, merit-based selection processes should be used to allocate grants’,
  • ‘the proper maintenance, awareness and availability of appropriate grants administration documentation and processes’, and ‘decision-makers should document the reasons for decisions in awarding grants’,
  • ‘ensuring that decisions relating to grant opportunities are impartial, appropriately documented and reported … providing reasons for decisions and the provision of two-way information to government, the Parliament, potential grantees, grantees, beneficiaries and the community’.

Furthermore, ‘The Minister must not approve the grant without first receiving written advice from officials on the merits of the proposed grant or group of grants’. While there is legal provision for ministers when making their determinations to depart from official advice,  that is based on the above requirements, ‘ministers (including Senators) must report annually to the Finance Minister on all instances where they have decided to approve a particular grant which the relevant official has recommended be rejected’.

While it is not clear whether this information should be made public, that would seem to be the intent. In any event, the minister would need to document his reasons for his decision and that should be subject to FOI.

On the evidence publicly available, however, none of these provisions has been followed in the case of the sports grants and grants for car parks. It would seem that the Morrison Government’s obsession with secrecy has now reached the point where it is actually flouting the law.

In sum this culture of secrecy is the enemy of good government, damaging both its integrity and its policy capability.

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