By Sven Bluemmel, Victorian Information Commissioner
While there was a brief rise in trust in government in Australia in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, trust in government and institutions is generally declining. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer report shows a further fall in trust in Australia from 2019 to 2020. The majority of Australians do not trust their institutions or politicians to do what is right.
This decline in trust is problematic, however rebuilding trust is not impossible.
As the small boost in trust over the government’s COVID-19 response (at both federal and state levels) demonstrates, it is possible for government to earn trust, at least over relatively short periods of time. The bigger challenge, though, is building and maintaining that trust in the longer term.
As Victoria's Information Commissioner, I strongly believe in the ability to build trust through increasing government openness and transparency. It is only one aspect of building trust, but it is an important one.
Practically speaking, openness and transparency involves having access to more government information. This access, in turn, can build trust by keeping the public informed about what government is doing, why it is doing it, and how.
This benefit is not one-sided either. Access to information can also lead governments to make better decisions when members of the public are properly informed and can meaningfully contribute to policy development.
Having access to information does not mean the public will necessarily accept or agree with every decision that government makes. However, the ability to scrutinise those decisions is an essential part of our democratic society.
Imagine voting at election time without being able to get information about the candidate's proposed policies or views on key issues.
Access to information can also be used as a tool against corruption.
Government secrecy can lead to suspicions of corruption and mistrust in the community. By providing timely access to information on how government decisions are made, and how public resources are allocated, government can address public concerns of corruption by being transparent and accountable.
Information that reveals corruption should be released, as public interest should hold precedence over government secrecy.
Without access to government information, we are simply in the dark on corruption.
In the 2019-20 financial year, Victorian state and local government agencies received 40,951 FOI requests for documents under Victoria’s Freedom of Information Act 1982.
This is a staggering figure, nearly on par with the 41,333 freedom of information (FOI) requests received by the Commonwealth Government from across Australia in the same year. This increased demand for government information is possibly heightened due to COVID-19, but it is not new.
What these figures tell me is that Victorians are aware of their right to access information, and they exercise that right. Frequently.
Victorian public sector organisations must respect, promote, and uphold these rights.
My message to Victorian public sector organisations is to not be afraid of transparency. Let access to information be the rule, and refusal the exception.
Providing access to information and greater transparency can be used as a tool against corruption. It will also help to build and maintain public trust in government.
Sven Bluemmel was appointed Victoria's inaugural Information Commissioner in 2017. For more information, visit the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner's website.