Scott Morrison famously said ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’, and it caused him political harm. Anthony Albanese purports to hold a hose, but it’s a secret hose. Rex Patrick examines the Federal Government’s refusal to share emergency management information with the public.
The 2023-24 fire season is already well underway. We’ve seen extensive bushfires across Australia involving significant property loss, and sadly loss of life. And there’s a lot more to come.
The Bureau of Meteorology declared an El Niño weather event to be underway. The Bureau is expecting heatwaves with a high chance of unusually hot temperatures for most of Australia until at least February 2024 and there’s an increased bushfire risk for much of eastern and southern Australia due to reduced rainfall, high fuel loads and above average temperatures.
A state of readiness?
Last month Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Emergency Management Minister Senator Murray Watt last month hosted a National Disaster Preparedness Summit at Parliament House in Canberra. According to Watt, the Australian Government is ready:
“I’m confident that as a country we’re well-prepared for the conditions forecast, but we aren’t complacent, and want to make sure we’re doing everything within our power to get ready. … “Since our election 16 months ago, the Albanese Government has worked hard to ensure Australia is better connected, better coordinated and better prepared for the disasters we know are coming.”
The Government has also been keen to highlight its implementation of many recommendations of the Bushfire Royal Commission. For good measure, at the start of this month, Albanese was quick to visit fire-ravaged Bega on the south coast of New South Wales.
Alert to the political risks of failed emergency management, the Federal Government is eager to be seen to be on the front foot, ready for a horror summer.
A secret hose
Against this background one might have thought the Federal Government would be keen to show just how thorough their preparations were for this fire season.
Three months ago, I sought to use Freedom of Information legislation to see just how government planning and programs might be shaping up. On 27 July, I requested from home affairs for submissions, briefings or reports provided to the Minister Watt, since 1 January 2023 that relate to planning, capabilities and/or preparedness to respond to bushfire emergencies in Australia during 2023-2024.
I wanted to see just how the Government has been preparing for the fire season, what their priorities are and what known shortfalls there might be in readiness. In the first instance, the best place to look is the flow of submissions and briefings provided to the responsible Minister. After all, that’s where the political buck stops.
And in this case it’s the submissions and briefings that have presumably informed Senator Watt’s confidence statements of preparedness.
Three months after I submitted my request, Home Affairs finally came back this week with a decision. They have seven submissions, briefings or reports provided the Minister but are denying access to me and the public. Not one word is to be released.
It’s not that they are confidential. It’s not that its F-35 tactics manuals or Five Eyes intelligence material; it’s about bushfire preparedness – something one might think all Australians have a right to know about.
It’s an extraordinary situation.
It’s private, go away
The authorised decision maker in this instance is Nathan Smyth, Deputy Secretary, National Security and Resilience. It’s rather odd that a first instance FOI decision maker is no one less than a Deputy Secretary, something that suggests more than a bit of political sensitivity about the documents in question.
Mr Smyth doesn’t make any claim that the seven documents are Cabinet papers or that their release would harm Commonwealth state relations. He simply states that are the documents are deliberative (advice or recommendations) and it’s not in the public interest to let the public see them.
In his decision he asserts “A Ministerial Submission plays an important role in the relationship between a Department and its Minister. Its purpose is to provide frank and honest advice. It is inherently confidential between the Department and its Minister and the preparation of a Ministerial Submission is essentially intended for the audience of that Minister alone.”
As Mr Smyth is sees it, the public interest is subordinate to the bureaucratic interest in keeping the business of government absolutely secret.
He goes on to articulate that “future Ministerial Submissions being prepared with a different audience in mind, which would compromise the quality of the advice being prepared for the Minister”.
That’s it. Our bureaucrats can only give “frank and honest advice” to ministers if it’s in the dark, completely shrouded in secrecy and directed to an audience of one.
Mr Nathyn Smyth is confusing departmental Interest with public interest.
It seems Mr Smyth needs a little retraining, and not from the Kathryn Campbell school of Public Service Conduct.
Australia operates under a responsible system of Government which means that the Government is accountable to the Parliament and public; for which transparency is essential. The Constitutional starting point is that Government is open – information can only be kept from the public if it has a quality of confidentiality about it.
Mr Smyth also seem oblivious to his and his colleagues’ legal obligations under section 10 of the Public Service Act which commands “The APS is open and accountable to the Australian community …” and “The APS is apolitical and provides the Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.”
He proposes impermissible conduct in suggesting advice will change if it is to be made public.
Public servants should always be frank and fearless in their advice, not wilting violets unable to function if exposed to public scrutiny.
Mr Smyth would do well to appreciate that the FOI exists and operates in absolute harmony with the Public Service Act.
Pezzullo lives on
Finally, Mr Smyth is very worried that releasing ministerial advice would create a precedent. He appears to be totally unaware of the fact that a wide range of departments have released numerous Ministerial submissions and briefing papers under FOI. The “precedent of public disclosure” for release of these types of documents was made decades ago.
It seems Home Affairs wants to reset the FOI regime into something that would be more in tune with the Chinese Ministry of State Security – nothing gets released, not a word.
Perhaps the legacy of currently suspended Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo lingers on.
Of course, this latest extreme secrecy decision could be a case of a recalcitrant bureaucrat being mindlessly obstructive, but it’s likely more calculated than that.
After all, a Government that says it’s been doing the hard work on bushfire and other emergency preparedness ought to be pretty relaxed about releasing information on that subject. That would surely show the public that the Government is taking these matters seriously and that its public reassurance is backed by action and preparation.
But maybe not. Maybe the Department’s advice suggests there are things that need to be done that haven’t. Perhaps there’s a shortfall in resources and capability. Perhaps there are still bureaucratic weaknesses and failings yet to be addressed. Perhaps the warnings about the severity of the risk are greater than have been acknowledged.
But we won’t find out because the processes involved in appealing an unsustainable exemption decision will likely not be completed before the 2023-24 fire season is over. An internal Home Affairs review of the decision will likely be dragged out. The Office of the Australian Information Commission has become a black hole for FOI reviews. Proceedings in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal will likely take months.
Whatever the truth that may or may not be in Minister Watt’s now secret briefings, one thing’s for sure; Smyth’s decision has prevented the timely release of information.
Show me your hose, Albo
In Opposition Labor made many commitments to improved openness and transparency. In Government it’s a different story. FOI reform isn’t even on the back-burner of the Government’s legislative agenda. Labor looks pretty content to maintain the status quo in a broken system of delay used so effectively by the previous government and which they once so loudly condemned.
Of course, in this instance Albanese or Watt could resolve things by simply releasing the bushfire planning and preparedness submissions and briefings. The sky wouldn’t fall in, even if they indicated there are still things that need to be done or improved.
Releasing this information would only be to the benefit of public debate and safety of our nation. But if they choose not to, one can only ask, “what are they hiding?”