The writer is in Australia
I WAS back at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the season opener of the 2023 Australian Football League season. This time last year, of course, I wasn’t allowed to attend. Did any of the 88,000 fans in attendance remember that? For all the hype, and the ‘it’s great to have the footy back’ tropes, nobody at the AFL or either of the clubs involved evidently thought a word of regret about the outright medical apartheid imposed last year was worth including in the pre-game build up.
Not that I was expecting one. No form of accountability or responsibility is ever going to be on the AFL’s radar. Which will make it that much more of a surprise to them when it comes.
I’m getting a similar vibe from the National Archives of Australia. Back in January, as politely as I could, I asked via their online inquiry page whether and how the records of the so-called National Cabinet established on March 13, 2020 would be made publicly available in due course, like the Federal Cabinet papers are, 20 years after the event.
A week later I got a pro-forma reply, suggesting that they would do their best to reply by midday on March 14. Predictably, midday March 14 came and went, so on March 15 I updated my request, as follows:
‘I would like to know, in the light of the Hancock WhatsApp scandal in the UK, what kinds of records are in the scope of the national archives; in particular, are text messages and other types of communication applications (like, but not limited to WhatsApp) the subject of preservation and public availability. I would also appreciate an update on the likely timeframe for a response to my request, given that the original estimate (14 March 2023) has now passed.
‘Reason for specific deadline:I want to be confident in the integrity of the National Archives of Australia – that they respond to enquiries on their merits and do not unnecessarily delay responses for any reason, especially political interference. Given that the response has not come within the original estimated time, I would urge you to try to respond within the next 2 weeks. Thank you.’
On March 20, I got this:
Dear Mr Kelly,
Thank you for your inquiry to the National Archives of Australia regarding National Cabinet records.
We are currently working on a response to your inquiry. You will hear from us in the near future.
National Reference Service
National Archives of Australia
Given that the so-called National Cabinet was established three entire football seasons ago, and that its deliberations gave the green light for policies which caused unprecedented social and economic carnage, I would have thought that the taxpayer-funded bozos running the joint ought to have seen this question coming sooner or later and got on with the job of preparing an answer, even if it was just a ‘nothing to see here’ answer of the sort we’ve come to expect and loathe.
These functionaries of the government working at the NAA, and every other department for that matter, would struggle to outline a case that they deserve our respect. They have treated the public as fools, and they will one day get what’s coming. But formal requests for information, following their own established procedures, at least serve one purpose. Each functionary who has to deal with the online inquiry, each line manager who has to advise the subordinate on how to respond, each committee wasting time trying to spin an answer, each minister drawn away from political in-fighting to approve a response, is confronted with the Big Lie.
The Big Lie is that the government always acts in our best interests. Every public servant along the conga line trying to answer my inquiry has to push that lie away as they try to craft an answer that won’t put them or their boss in jail. In the case of the NAA, will they be scrambling to hide the truth from the public? Will they try to hide WhatsApp messages like those of former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock who wanted to ‘frighten the pants off everybody’ or ‘deploy the new variant’? Will they conveniently uncover a little-known regulation that kicks the can down the road for 75 years?
Each administrative inquiry like mine is a little chisel blow on the edifice of the Big Lie, sold to the public as Truth. Each chisel blow on the edifice is a pin-prick on the conscience of the person or persons dealing with my inquiry. While the individual chisel strikes seem to have no impact, one day a fissure will open up, and the collapse will be something to see.
Until then, we have to live in a world that is collapsing every day in a multitude of ways. The collapse of trust in our institutions is mirrored in the collapse of trust in each other. These days, any factual proffered remark can elicit a harsh response which seems to burst out of a deep well of resentment, guilt or fear, especially if the remark is made by someone known or suspected of being a Covid heretic. Only a hero heretic would respond with an argument, and risk jobs, friendships, marriages. The rest of us bite our tongues, afraid of losing that which we hold most dear. The only coherent response to such aggression is to sanitise the relationship – to bathe it in so much of the antiseptic whitewash we call small talk that nothing can live on the surface, let alone take root and grow into a fruitful friendship. Existing relationships too find the soil drying up without the regular watering of honesty and understanding. We do what we can to try to understand, and counter, the resentment, guilt and fear, and nurse our precious relationships through this long, dusty drought.
Unlike Trust, which depends on mortals, the truth, or rather Truth, will survive. Truth is where it always was, and where it always will be.
This appeared in The view from down here on March 20, 2023, and is republished by kind permission.