All theorists agree that the media has some role in keeping government
accountable - usually ranked somewhere behind the electorate generally and
the parliamentary opposition and marginally ahead of assorted other
institutions of democracy like auditor-generals and corruption
Theory is all very well. In Australia generally, the institutions and
mechanisms of accountability can be seen to be under pressure. In a State
like Queensland where the electorate can't hedge its bets with a
legislative council assembled differently than a legislative assembly and
where the parliamentary opposition is a squabbling and unfocussed rump,
the scope and requirement for a strong media role in accountability is
If media outlets rise to this challenge, it creates a whole new set of
tensions - with their other role as businesses out to make a mostly honest
buck and with governments used to mostly getting their own way on most
issues with a minimum of fuss.
The Most Unaccountable State
Queensland may well qualify as the least accountable of the serious
States. It has but one house of parliament, no great tradition of
independence on the part of the speaker, and only a fairly new and
certainly not a very feisty heritage of parliamentary committees.
This is probably best illustrated by reference to current speaker Ray
Hollis, in a former life the chair of a committee which ventured some very
mild criticism of the Goss government. Words were exchanged behind closed
doors and Hollis emerged sprouting strenuous disagreement with his own
report - "arguing with himself" as the wags put it.
Estimates committees, a gloriously productive and usefully mischievous
institution in the Senate, exist in Queensland only in a carefully
choreographed way. Despite the highly restrictive interpretation of what
estimates might be, a promising line of questioning may start - but the
rules allow for its almost immediate interruption.
Members of the governing party who venture an opinion on something as
innocuous, for instance, as nude bathing on secluded beaches face stern
and instant discipline; what is worse perhaps is that they accept it so
Our auditor-general, technically an officer of the parliament, has done
some useful work but isn't really in the league of notable recent
Auditor-Generals from the Commonwealth, New South Wales and Victoria. The
role, however, along with that of other officials like the ombudsman,
comes with some quirky straitjacketing about what can be looked into and
how it can be looked into.
A State which does not accept that parliamentarians are much entitled
to information is hardly likely to extend any special privileges to
journalists or, for that matter, the inquisitive elector. Queensland is
obviously not the only jurisdiction to show itself much more adept at
demolishing freedom of information than it was at introducing it.
In line with general practice, documents are now buried under a pile of
restrictions and huge retrieval costs, and further insulated from
discovery by blatant abuses. A recent case involved interested parties
being invited to make submissions on a development application to which
access could only be gained through an FOI process taking longer than the
submission period, where only a portion of the application could be
accessed anyway, and then only at an exorbitant price. However the case
may have highlighted possible loopholes which could be exploited by
public-spirited old age pensioners with an intimate knowledge of
departmental document retrieval processes.
More than a decade ago, Fitzgerald directed the attention of his new
Electoral and Administrative Review Commission to the anti-democratic
activity of the growing cohorts of government media advisors. Some dust
and feathers flew while a report was compiled, and the media generally
suffered some embarrassments over revelations of how much copy was being
more or less directly written and provided by those allegedly under
analysis and scrutiny.
It was perhaps not surprising that this report did not enjoy much shelf
life, but now might be a good time to dust it off. A useful context might
be other recent controversies on the unaccountable power exercised by
This is part one of Phil Dickie's exposure of the
techniques politicians use to hide their activities from the media and the
public. Part two lists another 6.
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