Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bushfires Royal Commission should be more open

Back on 19 May, I emailed the Bushfires Royal Commission with the following:
Your website appears to have no public information about who is to appear before the commission and when they are to appear. Can you advise whether this information is publicly available, and when it is likely to be published on the Royal Commission website?
I got two replies on 25 May. There was the following:
Unfortunately there is no publicly available advance scheduling for evidence or witnesses. Given the dynamic nature of the witness list, which is being updated constantly, we cannot offer such a service.
Thank you for your email. We will not be publishing this information as I have been advised it could change considerably during the course of the week, however you are more than welcome to call the Commission at the beginning of the week and enquire.
I replied to the first (and along the same lines to the second) that that's what the web's for (i.e. to publish changing information).

This seemed to irk Commission media staff somewhat, resulting in the following reply:
Not quite sure what you meant by your response.

First and foremost our commitment has been to make the hearings as open and transparent as possible by web-streaming and allowing pool cameras and stills photographers in the hearing room and most people feel the Commission has done a good job in this respect.

Given the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the witness list, and given all our other priorities, we would struggle to keep it up to date on our website. So we have chosen to concentrate our activities on making sure the streaming happens and the media is well catered for so they can inform the public through TV, radio and the print media.

The public has access to transcripts the next day and the submissions are there for anyone to read. We are happy with the service we are providing but we will continue to look at ways to improve it.

I thought this deserved some elaboration, and sent off the following:

There are certainly some good aspects to your coverage. However, I find it difficult to believe you don't know quite what I mean. There are lots of aspects that aren't sufficiently transparent about this inquiry. They include:

1. Publication of who will appear and when - that information might be provisional but should not preclude its publication on the web with an appropriate disclaimer that the list might change and should be confirmed by phone if necessary. You could easily and almost instantly publish changes via a Royal Commission Twitter account, for example.

2. Whether the commission has any plans whatsoever to call evidence on climate change with a view to framing appropriate recommendations for more effective climate policy that might support the long-term prevention of bushfire.

3. How many parties applied for leave to appear compared to parties granted conditional or unconditional leave. I'd be interested to know, for example, what climate scientists or climate advocacy groups applied for leave and were refused.

4. The tardy online publication of submissions.

5. The number of confidential submissions that have been received by the commission, and whether these were from individuals or organisations.

6. The fact that terms can be searched across submissions, but not across hearing transcripts, which would be useful for the public, and for journalists.

Those are just a few points, but there may be others.
Is the web-streaming and provision of transcripts a good thing? Certainly. But the Royal Commission could do a lot more to make the process even more transparent - particularly with regard to signalling the broad directions of the inquiry, together with an indication of which witnesses will or will not be called. There can then be better public debate as to whether the inquiry was ever intending to look at such politically incovenient realities as climate change.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.