Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Secrets are out, all oldies, some goodies

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BRISBANE -- We had a haircut known as the mullet -- long at the back short at the sides -- and we smoked on airlines, didn't have Facebook profiles and believed phones should be tethered by cords.

AIDS was a strange new disease that brought out the worst of our prejudices, and $177 a week was a reasonable wage to survive on.

State schools had just 600 "computers," all purchased by parents who raised funds to bring this newfangled technology into the classroom.

Australians were reminded of these 1980s happenings by the annual disclosure this week of secret cabinet documents.

Public disclosure of cabinet documents is common in many democracies, including England and Ireland, where they are released after 30 years.

Australia is working to cut the wait period to 20 years by 2022.

This year, documents from 1986-87 were released.

Disclosure not only warms the hearts of democrats who like knowing that secrecy, inevitable in the process of governing, must eventually be swept aside. It also forms one of the stronger pillars of historical inquiry, giving us a reference point for cultural shifts.

This year we learned that in 1986-87, the Labor government of Bob Hawke was concerned as many as 70 Nazi war criminals were living in Oz, not because Australia had offered haven to members of the Third Reich, but because immigration checks in the 1950s and 1960s were lax.

We learned Australia set up the Nazi War Criminal Investigation Unit, which operated for five years and came up with... zilch.

It was shut down in 1992 after failing to produce one single successful prosecution.

Cabinet documents revealed it was supposed to operate "discreetly'' for fear of offending "some ethnic communities.''

In the northern state of Queensland, meanwhile, we learned MPs were busily planning a smoking-free generation to arrive by the year 2000 -- a noble aim that fell well short.

In Canberra, federal MP Gareth Evans had settled for trying to stop Australians smoking on planes.

He claimed the ban he introduced in 1986 was one of the more popular decisions he ever made.

It was supported by airline staff who, although smokers themselves, hated the fog of smoke in cabins every flight.

Evans, who gave an entertaining introduction to the release of the cabinet papers last week, also added some colour to the behind-the-scences quarrels inside cabinet.

He said that during a frustrating, late-night meeting he told then-prime minister Hawke: "Sometimes I feel like jobbing (punching) you.''

Hawke, grinned cheerfully and replied: "The feeling's mutual."

Opening up cabinet documents to reveal the machinations of government "warts and all" was good for democracy, Evans said.

"Long may this tradition continue."

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

michael.madigan6@bigpond.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2014 A9

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