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Richardson: For the Govt, saying it best is saying nothing at all

Opinion

The Marshall Government’s oft-stated commitment to openness and transparency is, ironically, proving to be little more than spin, writes Tom Richardson.

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This morning, the State Government released a summary of a report into how prisoner Jason Burdon managed to escape a supposedly high-security Adelaide jail last year, using clothes tied together to abseil from a kitchen air vent.

It released a summary because the report itself is confidential, but Attorney-General Vickie Chapman insisted this morning releasing just the key points was pretty good, too.

“As a Government that’s committed to transparency, that’s important,” she told reporters.

It’s well worth pondering the notion that this is a Government committed to transparency (once we’ve picked ourselves up from the floor and stifled our convulsive mirth, of course).

It’s a nice bit of spin, to be sure, and like all spin there needs to be a foundation of truth underpinning the sales pitch.

The Government is, indeed, committed to the idea of transparency.

It revels in the appearance of transparency.

And given its protagonists make themselves available to media questions on a regular, if not daily, basis, they’re well within their rights to argue that accountability is their bag, baby.

Except.

Back in the days of Victoria’s lengthy lockdown, that state’s Labor Premier Daniel Andrews gave daily live-streamed media briefings, generally playing a lone hand in responding to every question.

And yet when former Age journalist Jill Stark noted on social media that Andrews “really has perfected the art of fronting up each day to give the perception of transparency and accountability but then not actually saying anything”, she was pilloried by Twitter’s resident Dan fans.

Except that Andrews hadn’t really perfected the art.

Because his SA counterpart has added at least two handy innovations to his template.

Steven Marshall does a good line in positive hyperbole, prevarication and eschewing issues on which he’d rather not be drawn.

But the state’s chosen model of emergency management also means he gets to share the stage with two other bureaucrats who generally know a fair bit more than he does about the nuances of the topic du jour, which automatically reduces his interrogation time by roughly two thirds.

Which wouldn’t matter if things were allowed to proceed until all the questions had been answered, but alas that’s never the case.

For once matters move on from the stated subject of any given press conference, before too long the clarion call of a Government media manager will ring out: “Last question!”

The “last question” intervention is a canny addition, imported of late from Canberra, where it is at least defensible given federal politicians frequently have planes to catch, places to go, people to see.

Which is not to say that state politicians don’t have similar demands on their time, but surely they’re not always running late for everything?

Given that the “last question” edict is pretty much a daily occurrence, perhaps the Government’s media team should consider… I dunno, allowing more time for the media conferences?

Just a thought, anyway.

I’m not here to praise the previous administration, but it’s a fact that the former Labor government ditched the idea that it should determine the cut-off time for journalists’ questions around halfway through its tenure, and thereafter the phrase “last question” was nary heard again (except on those rare occasions when there genuinely were planes to catch, places to go, people to see).

The more headstrong members of that administration, such as Kevin Foley, would refuse to prematurely wind up media conferences I suspect because they derived genuine satisfaction out of surviving a grilling and seeing their interrogators run out of things to ask.

Even back in those days, though, the Libs weren’t keen on spending valuable time answering questions.

I’ll never forget the moment a harried Stephen Wade, as Shadow Health Minister, turned to his media adviser in the middle of a particularly heated press pack grilling and desperately urged him to wind it up.

To which the adviser, a pre-Property Council Daniel Gannon, politely shook his head, leaving the frazzled frontbencher to continue facing the music.

Which brings me to my main beef with the Marshall Government’s notion that it’s open and transparent.

It doesn’t answer anything.

Let’s take Wade as a mere example.

A couple of weeks back, he was hosting the regular media briefing on matter COVID-19, when he was asked to comment on that day’s proposal by Labor that the Government should bring back the defunct Brand SA outfit, which was shuttered in 2019 after its funding was axed.

Presumably because no-one else from the Government had fronted cameras on the issue, Wade was asked: “Do you think this is something the State Government should consider doing itself?”

Wade’s answer – or non-answer, as the case may be – is a masterclass in obfuscation.

“Particularly in the context of the pandemic, we’ve seen the strong focus of this Government on maintaining both the economic health and the public health of South Australia,” he began.

“We’ve fared better than a significant number of other states and territories [and] we’ll continue to support South Australian businesses to both grow their local businesses and grow their export business.”

All clear then?

It required another reporter to follow up with a pointed rejoinder: “But not bringing back Brand SA?”

To which Wade at length conceded: “It’s not on the table at the moment.”

Now, this is but one example, and a not-very-important one.

But the fact Wade’s default response to this not-very-significant question was to fudge the issue – rather than simply say, quite reasonably, ‘well, no, we’re not’ – is bizarrely telling.

Moreover, you could find similar non-answers in pretty much any other media conference on any given day.

The Premier’s own response to my question a few days ago about a matter before the Liberal state executive, on which he sits, was that he didn’t know about it because he hadn’t attended for some time and hadn’t been briefed – a response one former veteran Liberal adviser dubbed “‘the dog ate my state executive minutes’-level stuff”.

And, of course, the media conference protagonists are only duty-bound to answer questions in their own bailiwick.

Otherwise, you tend to get that response so beloved of Marshall and his ilk: “I haven’t been briefed about that.”

So for those inquiries, one must submit written questions to departmental bureaucrats or ministerial acolytes and, when at length one receives a response akin to Wade’s initial answer above, one must then submit the clarifying rejoinder, also in writing, and wait several more hours for a secondary response.

Many of these people apparently have an aversion to speaking on the telephone, so simple explanations to basic questions can take literally days of back and forth.

The Liberals came into power pledging ‘Open Government’ but, three years on, the A-G’s claim that they’re “committed to transparency” is – transparently – ridiculous.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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