Top bureaucrats are acting out of self-interest in their attack on the public's right to information on government activities, a former Canberra mandarin says.
Former top public servant Bill Blick says there is no evidence that freedom of information laws inhibit "frank and fearless" advice from the bureaucracy to politicians and that he never lost any sleep over FoI laws when he was a senior public servant and nor should today's crop of mandarins.
Mr Blick, a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, a former Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence and former Deputy Commonwealth Ombudsman, called on the critics of FoI to put up some "frank and fearless evidence" to support their call, or "shut up".
Several departmental bosses, including Australia's most senior public servant Martin Parkinson, secretary of the Prime Minister's department, lined up in Canberra this week to attack FoI laws, claiming they frightened bureaucrats away from the traditional "frank and fearless" advice to ministers.
Mr Parkinson was joined by Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd, Industry Department Boss Glenys Beauchamp and Environment Department secretary Gordon de Brouwer who all backed the PM&C chief's call for more exemptions to the FoI laws to allow more documents to be suppressed, especially around the"deliberative" process; the advice from the public service to ministers.
Ms Beauchamp even told the IPAA conference on Monday her job would be easier if she did not have to manage the "risk" of journalists using the FoI process to research stories.
But Mr Blick says the claims were "self-serving comments from the usual suspects" that "might have more credibility if supported by some frank and fearless evidence".
"I lived with FoI for many years at pretty senior levels in the public service and it didn't cause me to lose any sleep and I certainly wouldn't be getting up and advocating that there be greater exemptions than there were at that time," he told The Canberra Times.
The debate in Canberra on Monday followed a report by former PM&C secretary Peter Shergold, which found public servants deliberately toned down their advice to ministers, which led to major policy failures.
Mr Shergold's report cited the Rudd government's ill-fated 2009 home insulation scheme, which was plagued by "massive failures" characterised by weak advice from departments.
But Mr Blick was scathing of that argument, saying he had read no evidence in several reports on the failings around pink batts that bureaucrats had toned-down their advice for fear of it going public at a later date through the FoI scheme.
"The self-serving comments from the usual suspects might have more credibility if supported by some frank and fearless evidence, such as numbers and examples of deliberative documents actually released under FoI that failed the Parkinson test for good policy design," Mr Blick writes in a letter to the editor, published today.
"Dr Shergold's reported views might, too, if there were any evidence at all that fear of exposure under FOI had an effect on the pink batts scheme, rather than the factors identified in the several investigative reports on said scheme."