Government 'transparency': what's at stake?

In the negotiations between the two major parties and the Greens and independents over who would form the new federal government, “transparency” was a frequently mentioned issue. Tony Abbott and the Coalition were criticised, legitimately, for their effort to hide the real cost of their election promises. The agreement between the ALP and Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott pledged them, among other things, to “pursue” “transparent and accountable government”. After Windsor and Oakeshott announced their support for Labor, Julia Gillard gushed, “... let’s draw back the curtains and let the sun shine in, let our parliament be more open than it was before”, adding, “We will be held to higher standards of transparency and reform ...”

The concern about “transparency” — making the workings of government visible — is a legitimate one. It arises so frequently because the tendency of modern capitalism is to keep government business more and more hidden. The reason for this is quite simple. The longer capitalism survives, the more its governments serve the interests only of a declining minority of the population. This becomes more and more obvious with the passage of time — if people know what the government is doing.

‘Freedom of information’ laws

Some countries now have “freedom of information” laws of varying effectiveness. While in themselves these laws may be desirable, if they are real, they are not a sign of governments becoming more transparent. Rather, they are an attempt, usually unsuccessful, to stem governments’ hiding of more and more. There were no freedom of information laws 100 or 150 years ago because nobody at that time imagined how much capitalist governments would eventually try to hide.

What kind of information is being hidden? An Australian example is available. Thirty years ago, the Australian Bureau of Statistics used to publish a pocket-size book of 100 or 200 pages full of all sorts of facts. What I found most interesting in that booklet was the figures on income tax. It normally divided all taxpayers into groups by taxable income. For each group, the ABS showed the total taxable income and the total income tax the group paid. So it was easy to calculate the average income tax paid by each group: just divide the total tax by the total taxable income.

The highest rate of income tax was not paid by the people with the highest taxable income. It’s important to realise that we are talking here about taxable income: the income on which people are supposed to pay tax even after they’ve reduced their real income by failed investments, charitable contributions, bribes to politicians and all the other deductions available to the rich. Even after all those deductions, people on the highest “taxable” income paid income tax at a lower rate than some other groups. The highest rate was paid by people in the $50,000-70,000 range, people who (at prices 30 years ago) were in what was called the “upper middle class”, which would have included workers lucky enough to be on the top available wages.

The ABS of course did not explain what legal dodges allowed the rich not to pay tax on most of their “taxable” income. It simply reported the totals that revealed that Australia’s income tax, which was progressive up to a point, became regressive when it concerned the wealthy. In the previous version of Direct Action, which was published up to 1990, I sometimes wrote articles that referred to this example of the class bias of the government. I hope and presume that other people also did so.

Hiding figures

The government, at a leisurely pace that would not be tolerated today, finally dealt with the situation: the ABS stopped publishing those figures. I have recently tried searching the ABS web site and can not find even a reference to income tax, let alone to revealing statistics about it.

This is the kind of secrecy that the independent and Green MPs should counter. It should not be just a matter of giving more information to parliament. There is too much hidden information that should be available to us all.