Moore / Periscope up, but no secrets to be seen

“Cabinet ‘pop up’ consultation processes in town centres should not be confused with open government. It does not get around the secrecy of government decisions,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE

THE ACT Cabinet has announced that it will open the cabinet process by live streaming with the social media tool Periscope. It might be a “world first” to Periscope into cabinet as another consultation device, but it confronts cabinet secrecy.

Michael Moore.

Michael Moore.

While it takes up to 20 years before all cabinet documents are made public, the secrecy of the cabinet process is anything but open. The biggest step toward open government would be adopting a five-year rule for release of cabinet papers.

Periscope and other media tools have a growing place in our community. They facilitate communication. This particular social media tool allows Twitter followers to watch a live streamed video of Cabinet and to make comments via Twitter.

The Barr government has recognised the importance of social media and it is working hard to make it play a constructive role. It runs parallel with cabinet “pop up” consultation processes in town centres.

However, this should not be confused with open government. It does not get around the secrecy of government decisions.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr is keen on social media. As pointed out in this column in May, @ABarrMLA had nearly 8000 followers – it is now closer to 8800.

At the time he explained: “Social media is an incredibly important tool in communicating with a broad range of constituents, particularly younger people and the growing number who do not engage with traditional media.”

As a consultation process it does provide an additional dimension. The Periscope Cabinet can be followed from 7.30pm to 8.30pm, on August 31 using the twitter handle #CBRCabinet.

However, it is not about open cabinet. Credit is due to the Labor government that has taken some steps to opening the decisions of Cabinet. In July, 2011, the decision was made to publish the “Summary of Cabinet Outcomes”. These can easily be found with a simple Google search.

Publishing an oversight of the decisions is an important step forward – but there are considerable limitations. According to the Cabinet website the decisions “are not intended to be a detailed set of minutes and do not cover all matters considered by Cabinet.

“Among the matters not covered are materials considered in the formation of the ACT Budget, commercial and industrial matters under negotiation as well as matters that would impact personal privacy, security and the ACT economy.

“Nothing in this document can be considered a waiver of the government’s executive privilege.”

Protecting Budget decisions and personal privacy are reasonable. The same applies to consideration of commercial matters that are, for example, part of a tender process. However, other commercial, security and economic matters are the very things that usually interest the community.

For the July 21 Cabinet meeting, for example we know the Cabinet did consider and endorse widening of Majura Road, noted some issues the Chief Minister would take to the COAG retreat (without identifying the actual positions), considered the “Spring 2015 Legislative Program” (without identifying what was in it) and endorsed the government’s response to Assembly Committee reports (without indicating what the responses might be). They also approved a series of appointments including acting judges for the Supreme Court (without identifying who they might be).

Real openness would be providing genuine access to cabinet documents. Currently section 7.4 of the “Cabinet Handbook (2013)” facilitates “the public release of Cabinet papers 10 years after they have been considered by Cabinet”. However the Cabinet Secretariat can restrict accessible executive documents.

Open access may actually take 20 years!

Section 7.5 “creates a general right of access to directorate records, including documents of the ACT executive, after 20 years”. Freedom of Information legislation is applicable – but “cabinet-in-confidence” is a standard reason for denying access.

It is positive that the Barr government is using Periscope to open its consultation process with regard to the Cabinet. As a member of the Legislative Assembly, I unsuccessfully proposed creating a much more accountable and open government by making the cabinet papers available after five years. I cannot remember a single cabinet document where this would have created a problem. The community is still waiting.

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health. He can be followed on Twitter @mmoore50

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