Tight-lipped ... Prime Minister Tony Abbott last month at one of his rare press conferences. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The new Abbott government is trying to control the flow of information by limiting ministers' contact with journalists and refusing to feed the daily media cycle. The Prime Minister has vowed his government will act ''calmly and methodically'', issuing press statements only when it has something to say and otherwise going quietly about the business of governing.
Reaction from the media has been hostile and sceptical. First, the policy is seen as objectionable: an affront to democratic accountability, depriving the public of access to legitimate public information. Second, it is impractical and doomed to failure. As Laurie Oakes argued in a rare public outburst, other modern leaders, such as Britain's Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, have tried the same tactic and failed. So, too, will Tony Abbott in a matter of months if not weeks.
The media itself has a strong vested interest in this issue.
Are these charges justified? Is the policy both misplaced and futile?
To begin with, the media itself has a strong vested interest in this issue. It is the main driver of the 24-hour news cycle that developed out of recent advances in communications, such as continuous news channels, websites and social media. The internet may be slowly killing daily newspapers but media companies hope it can also rescue them by providing a constant stream of political and other news.
Commentators on government, however, have had a more jaundiced view of the effects of the sped-up media cycle. The relentless demand for press releases and ''announceables'' has made ministers become consumed with short-term and superficial results to the neglect of more important long-term strategy. Media minders and spin doctors assume too much influence, while policy advisers struggle to get a hearing. Former senior public servants, such as Andrew Podger and Terry Moran, have bemoaned the effect of the media cycle in marginalising the public service and its advice. No doubt they have spoken for many others in the Australian Public Service. Former Productivity Commission chairman Professor Gary Banks recently made the same critique.
From this perspective, Abbott's attempt to work more methodically at a slower pace is to be applauded, as is his reinstatement of the ''10-day'' rule, requiring all cabinet submissions to be completed 10 days before they are scheduled for discussion. Public servants, at least, should appreciate a more orderly approach to the management of government processes. If ministers and their offices can work at a more measured pace without succumbing to the pressure for photo opportunities and instant announcements, the technical quality of government decision-making must surely improve. Indeed, the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ian Watt, in his recent speech at the Institute of Public Administration Australia's conference, explicitly welcomed the government's return to the white paper process that had fallen into disuse in the late 1990s.
Critics of the government find Abbott's about-face on media access hard to take. In opposition, he made ruthlessly effective use of the media cycle, pandering to its daily needs with endless stunts and sound bites. For him of all people to preach the virtues of calm and deliberation when now in office appears the height of hypocrisy.
Certainly, Abbott may have demonstrated shameless chutzpah, but not without reason. Opposition and government simply call for different approaches. Successful opposition leaders must ''cut through'' to be heard. Prime ministers, on the other hand, need to spend time crafting workable policies if they are to have a chance of winning the next election.
Kevin Rudd failed to recognise this simple truth, behaving in government as if he were still in opposition, desperately in need of a daily headline. Abbott and his advisers have learned that lesson and appear determined to set a less hectic and more deliberate pace. Public servants should fall willingly into step. Advocates of good policy should similarly applaud from the sidelines.
What, then, of public accountability? Should the average citizen join the journalists in deploring the drought of ministerial information? Or should we meekly accept shortened rations? Much depends on the type of information concerned and the channels used. If ministers, including the prime minister, choose to hold fewer press conferences or doorstops and tweet fewer press releases, the wider public might not be seriously affected. Indeed, many members of the public appear tired of the endless political argy-bargy that has fuelled the media cycle in recent years. A reduction in the extent of simplistic sloganeering and adolescent name-calling hardly rates a serious threat to public understanding of government or democratic debate. Journalists may be left with more spaces to fill but the rest of us will probably feel relief.
More serious, however, would be restrictions on the main constitutional mechanisms of transparency and accountability, such as parliamentary questions and debates, Senate estimates hearings, freedom of information requests and so on. These are the forums through which a government can be searchingly scrutinised and which are essential to democratic accountability. Here, some worrying signs are emerging. The changes to House of Representatives standing orders, limiting the time for private members' business and removing supplementary questions, could be seen as reducing the House's effectiveness in holding the government to account. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's refusal to answer questions in Parliament when he was prepared to answer the same questions in a media briefing betrayed an arrogant contempt for Parliament's authority. FOI disclosure appears to be becoming more restrictive as ministers seek to keep their powder dry and as public servants, keen to show loyalty to their new masters, avoid displaying evidence of any disagreement with the elected government.
Some of these difficulties may be short-lived. How effectively the Parliament will operate under the new Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, remains to be seen. Morrison's stubborn recalcitrance in question time is embarrassing his colleagues and may well be toned down. FOI decisions may become more relaxed as ministers and officials develop more mutual trust and confidence. On the other hand, these initial signs may be harbingers of a new, hard-line resistance by the government to its accountability obligations.
More broadly, Labor's string of deceptively named ''efficiency dividends'', maintained by the Abbott government, must be cutting into the effectiveness of key accountability agencies, such as the offices of the Auditor-General, the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Australian Information Commissioner, and into the levels of parliamentary support staff. The government has delegated to its own ''commission of audit'' the task of recommending from where cuts to the public service should come. But given the commission's membership and its brief to cut regulatory costs, it is unlikely to give priority to retaining the viability of agencies charged with keeping governments honest and accountable.
Few members of the government have shown any commitment to the principles of liberal constitutionalism to which the Liberal Party is officially committed. Certainly, the Coalition has no equivalent of the open government reform agenda that Labor brought with it in 2007 under the championship of senator John Faulkner, which the crossbenchers in the Gillard minority government were able to re-energise.
Accountability advocates will therefore be watching nervously as the new government's modus operandi evolves. Whether it succeeds in its attempt to turn off the daily drip-feed of ministerial spin will remain an open question. Modern media outlets cannot tolerate a news vacuum and are finding their own stories to tell. The opposition is yet to develop its own media strategy but it will not have overlooked Abbott's effective use of the hourly sound bite and daily photo-op. At some point, the Prime Minister and his media advisers may feel pressured to respond in kind, in order to regain some of the media initiative. If so, it is to be hoped they do not confuse the daily appearance of governing with the real thing.
In the meantime, the real test of their commitment to open government will lie in how they respond to the legal institutions of accountability and transparency, not in how often they hit the airwaves.
Richard Mulgan is an emeritus professor with the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.