"What I See, You See." In Chris Mullins' political thriller, A Very British Coup, the democratic-socialist prime minister, Harry Perkins, empowers the people by sweeping away all government secrecy. In the process, he makes it easier for his colleagues to resist the temptation to keep the media and the electorate in the dark. What a coup it would be if the Labour-NZ First-Green Government did the same.
ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE aspects of A Very British Coup, is the left-wing prime minister’s commitment to open government. Thirty years may have passed since the television adaptation of Chris Mullin’s novel was broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4, but with a left-wing pacifist Leader of the Opposition poised to become the UK’s next prime minister, the series has taken on a surprisingly contemporary feel. Certainly, the question of how much of the day-to-day business of government should remain hidden from public view has become a very live issue in New Zealand.
Much has been made of the National Party Opposition’s “spamming” of the new Labour-NZ First-Green government. The thousands of written parliamentary questions piling-up in Ministers’ offices have been decried as a cheap political stunt by the Government’s supporters, but other commentators, determined to uphold the principles of government accountability and transparency have defended the Opposition’s actions.
When A Very British Coup first screened here, back in the late 1980s, I very quickly came to think of it as a wonderful primer in how a genuinely left-wing Labour government should behave. Nowhere was the radicalism of the fictional British PM, Harry Perkins, more vividly on display than in the way he treated his government’s “official information”.
Rather than force political journalists and Opposition MPs to file endless OIA requests and ask endless parliamentary questions, Harry simply announced that what he saw, they would see, also. Everything, from his daily appointments schedule, to Cabinet briefing papers and departmental reports, would be released to the news media, and the public, immediately and without distinction. Government secrecy would become a thing of the past.
Chris Mullin (a British Labour Party MP, as well as a thriller writer) was making a truly revolutionary point about political information.
The moment a government decides that some information is simply too sensitive, problematic and/or embarrassing to be shared with the voters, it is entering into a conspiracy against the public good. Why shouldn’t ordinary citizens know who Cabinet Ministers are meeting with – and the nature and content of their discussions? It is, after all, in their name that government decisions are made, and their money which pays for them. Surely, only a politician with something to hide would raise objections to a policy of full and immediate disclosure?
Civil servants and lobbyists would, of course, object that by exposing their interventions to public scrutiny such a government would very quickly end up being told only those things that their advisers would be happy to see on the front page of the NZ Herald. To which I would respond: “And what’s wrong with that?” If their advice is well-founded in fact and devoid of any hint of self-interest, then what possible objection could they have to the public being copied in? Surely, it would only be those offering tendentious, ideologically-driven advice to ministers, or appealing to them on their private clients’ behalf, who would find such a radical open government policy objectionable?
The old adage: “Information is Power”; imposes a real moral burden on democratic socialist politicians. If democracy is all about giving power to the people, then withholding information from them is, objectively, an act of deliberate disempowerment.
A radical open government policy, such as that adopted by Harry Perkins in A Very British Coup, offers something else to democratic socialist politicians: protection from themselves. Unable to hide their words and deeds from the public, deviating from their own principles and/or their party’s policies becomes much more difficult!
Harry Perkins, unlike Steve Maharey, could never quietly abandon a policy with the cynical observation that it was “just one of those things you say in Opposition and then forget about in Government”. His radical open government policy was, at once, a means of further empowering the people who elected him, and of making sure they were governed by decent and more honest politicians.
No wonder the Establishment was so desperate to bring him down!
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 28 November 2017.