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Problems in getting to the story and getting it out

By Phil Dickie - posted Thursday, 26 September 2002

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 commissions.

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 correspondingly greater.

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 meekly.

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 ministerial staff.

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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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About the Author

Phil Dickie is editor of The Brisbane Line, Newsletter of The Brisbane Institute. His investigative journalism in the 1980s led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in Queensland.

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