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High Court Chipps back right to know

By Cecelia Burgman - posted Friday, 29 September 2006

Yesterday was the fourth International Right to Know day. It is a day of action, protest and celebration around the world, marking the existence and demanding the fulfilment of the fundamental human right to information. It is a right that Australia has committed itself to by signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is a right that is fundamental to any democracy - allowing citizens to know what the government is doing and thereby participate in policy making and choose who they want to represent them based on accurate and full information.

One month ago today the legendary Australian Don Chipp died. He fought the "love of secrets" and creation of a "Big Brother state"  by politicians who he felt were undermining the democratic credentials of the country and was most famous for his attempts to "keep the bastards honest". Chipp consistently advocated more transparent government, more participatory policy making and for politicians to stop believing and behaving as though they know what is better for the people than the people know themselves.

Earlier this year, Australia plummeted to its lowest point in the history of the 1982 Freedom of Information Act. Just three weeks ago the Australian High Court handed down its decision in McKinnon v The Secretary of the Department of the Treasury. In this case the High Court interpreted the Freedom of Information Act in a way that allows the Government to determine what information we, as citizens of a liberal democracy, need to see. This interpretation undermines the spirit of the Act and confirms Don Chipp"s fears of the emergence of an opaque and big brother government. 


All citizens in all countries have a right to know what their government is doing. It is not an irrelevant ideal that can be ignored in the belief that government would do no harm. It is a right that underlies any working democracy, which functions on the premise of an informed constituency that is able to choose its representatives and hold their government accountable for the policies and decisions it makes.

However, this most recent blow to the Freedom of Information Act, which has a very wide range of consequences for future interpretation of the Act, has not been met with the outrage from citizens that it deserves. This lack of concern is dangerous. Every Australian should be aware that the Act should provide them with a crucial right to access information about Government activities that can affect their day-to-day lives - whether they be decisions on health policy, information on inequality in spending on social benefits and payment of tax, decisions on environmental issues such as logging and salinity, or security issues such as involvement in conflicts such as Iraq. The list goes on.

In many countries across the world citizens are marking the Right to Know Day in wonderful ways, recognising the importance of freedom of information in a democracy. Some, such as Canada, are holding week long celebrations marking their established and quite successful freedom of information regime that has helped strengthen governance and policy-making in the country. In Sierra Leone civil society groups are holding a rally in the streets to pressure their government to implement their freedom of information bill which will give citizens an opportunity to reverse the poor standards of governance that have long blighted the country"s development.

So what did Australians do to mark the day? As the Freedom of Information Act no longer effectively enforces the right to information, Australians should have protested for the realisation of their fundamental right to access information which the government holds on trust for the people they represent.

Successive Australian Governments have failed to amend the Act to the standards of international best practice, and there is no evidence that this Government will be the first to do so without further pressure. It is now up to the citizens of this country, with the support of the media, to demand the law be amended to enable all Australians to use their fundamental right to access information.

So to honour Right to Know Day this year, I suggest that every Australian should write, email or ring their member of parliament, the prime minister himself, their state senator, or anyone else who will listen and request the law to be amended so that Australians can finally be proud to say that they truly do have an open and democratic government.

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About the Author

Cecelia Burgman works for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an independent, non-partisan, international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the lives of the people in the Commonwealth.

Related Links
Freedom of Iinformation Act 1982
McKinnon v Secretary, Department of Treasury [2006] HCA 45

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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