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Cabinet files story shows Australia still needs to be more open about the debates that shape the nation

TJ Ryan Foundation Research Associate, Patrick Weller, writes in The Conversation (1.2.18) that, in the wake of the federal government's inadvertent 'loss' of confidential cabinet documents, we need to balance a legitimate desire for transparency in politics with the need for free and thoughtful debate.

'Cabinet government requires confidentiality. Ministers have to be able to discuss alternative options to solve the problems they must manage. They have to able to express opinions and probe proposals. If they do not, then cabinet government becomes a rubber stamp for solutions devised elsewhere. Whether they always do argue matters less than the fact that the opportunity, and the expectation, is there.

'When confidentiality is breached, when leaks provide the public with the range of views expressed and identify those who lost the argument, then ministers will tend to keep quiet, and prime ministers will take the debate somewhere else – into cabinet committees or into their own offices.

'The principle of collective responsibility, which holds that all minsters are bound in public to support the decisions of the government, whether or not they were involved making it, can work only if the minsters (usually) had an opportunity to influence that decision.

'That is just practical politics. Decisions are normally a matter of degree, not a case of right or wrong: how much or how little, this or that wording. The core may be easy, the difficulty is in the detail. The air of certainty, of governments arguing there is only one proper response – theirs – and all else is inadequate, is an artifice, a pretence that no-one should believe.'

 

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