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The saying goes that “money talks and bullshit walks”. Maybe that was true once upon a time, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and people still thought Vietnam was a just war. It certainly isn’t true anymore. Oh, money still talks – but quietly, behind closed doors. Bullshit, on the other hand, is the world’s new native tongue.
Take this example, ripped from the headlines this very morning. A blind woman seeking an improvement in the quality of service from Metro Trains – an improvement, I might add, that would consist entirely of them actually living up to their legal obligations not to discriminate against the sight-impaired (an obligation that every organisation must fulfil – it’s not like Metro are being singled out here) can apparently only do so if she will sign a non-disclosure agreement.
This is how Metro Trains treats the sight-impaired: it seeks to make them mute as well.
Money does not just talk, you understand. It also silences.
The claimed reason for this non-disclosure agreement, by the way, is a little thing called “commercial confidentiality”. If you live in the state of Victoria, there’s a good chance you never heard these words before Jeff Kennett became Premier. But their use – indeed, their ubiquity – has risen hand in hand with the rise of privatisation in
this state. Commercial confidentiality is the idea that businesses need to be legally able to protect certain information from getting out in order to remain competitive. And based on the last three decades, it seems that corporations created by privatising government agencies need this protection even more than other corporations.
A brief refresher here: privatisation is the idea that business can run essential services more efficiently than government. It’s an American idea, an aspect of the Free Market economics dogma that arose from the Chicago School of Economics and conquered the world more thoroughly than any invader since Genghis Khan. In a Free Market, we are told – which is one that is free of government interference in economic activity – corporations will always out-perform governments.
There are a number of problems with this idea. The most obvious is that to any corporation, ‘efficiency’ means ‘profitability’ – which is an odd concept to apply to traditionally loss-making public services such as education or medicine. Or public transport.
The case mentioned above shows another great reason why privatisation is doomed to failure: because corporations do not want an end to government interference in the market. They just want an end to interference that doesn’t benefit them.
Returning to commercial confidentiality, the very idea of being able to protect information in this way contradicts the most basic assumptions that the Free Market theory that promotes the idea of privatisation is based upon. If the flow of information is restricted, the market is no longer free. But you won’t hear any corporation complaining about this lack of freedom, because corporations don’t care about the freedom of the market, just of themselves. Commercial confidentiality frees them in a number of ways, but most obviously, it goes a way towards freeing them of potential competitors.
And that’s just using commercial confidentiality as it was intended to be used. The potential for abuse is high, and corporations don’t hesitate for a second to use this legislation to silence their critics – even in a case like the one linked to above, where it’s hard to see how any confidential information could be involved, given that the case concerns publically made announcements. To give another example, commercial confidentiality has also been used to cover up human rights abuses in privatised prisons, both in Australia and overseas – apparently, the profitability of corporations outweighs the human rights of prisoners. Even those in remand centres, who are still
awaiting trial and are legally presumed innocent.
The most common usage of commercial confidentiality, however, is the one seen in this case: using it to cover up management incompetence and to evade accountability.
Aren’t you glad you live in the age of the Free Market?