Thursday, February 02, 2012

No right to know

What are our government's foreign policy priorities for the next three years? What are the problems on its immediate radar? In the past, you'd have been able to find out, in general terms at least, through the post-election Briefing to the Incoming Minister (BIM). But not under National. This year's BIM [PDF] has been almost entirely censored, the majority of its contents replaced by a single statement that the contents have been "withheld under s6(a)". Under National, we have no right to know what our foreign policy is.

Its a perfect example of the cult of secrecy which infects our entire foreign-policy establishment. And it makes a mockery of the claim that the government is acting on our behalf. The foundation of democratic legitimacy is the consent of the governed. But how can the government claim its actions are legitimate, when it refuses to tell us what it is doing? And how can it claim that consent if we are not given a meaningful chance to refuse it?

If there is no transparency, if there is no right to know, then there is no legitimacy. It is that simple.

The irony here is that much of the information MFAT and its control-freak Minister have censored is in fact in the public domain. Just off the top of my head, I can say that those broad diplomatic priorities will include the negotiation of free-trade deals such as the TPP, the promotion of peace and security through international law and collective security, building a strong rule-governed trade regime, and working to ensure that Fiji's dictator keeps his promise of free and fair elections in 2014. Issues for the Minister's immediate attention will probably include that UNSC campaign, whichever FTA is front of the queue, the appointment of various ambassadors (depending on who is expiring soon), and MFAT's restructuring.

None of this is any secret. The only thing gained by pretending that it is is to reinforce the sense of power of those "in the know". But that ego-boosting secrecy comes at great cost to our democracy. We should not tolerate it. Instead, we should insist that our government makes its foreign policy principles and agenda public, so that we can see what is being done in our name, and hold them to account for any actions we do not like. Anything less is simply dictatorship.