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Federal

Feb 26, 2014

Can't handle the truth? On the front line in the Coalition's war on scrutiny

The soldier heading "Operation Sovereign Borders" is indeed engaged in a political cover-up. Other bureaucrats aren't quite so skilled. Crikey compares some key hearings in Canberra yesterday.

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You could fault opposition defence spokesman Stephen Conroy’s taste in movies, but not his choice of words in describing Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, head of “Operation Sovereign Borders”, as participating in a “political cover-up” in his refusal to share information about the policy he oversees.

That policy includes the process of towing back — however you want to define it — asylum seeker boats to Indonesia, during which our vessels repeatedly entered Indonesia’s territorial waters, censorship of media attempts even to cover Campbell’s activities and indefinitely detaining those who have reached Australia on Nauru and Manus Island. It was on the latter, of course, that one was killed and many others injured last week by either the security officials meant to be guarding them, PNG police or local Manus Islanders allowed into the detention centre.

Who exactly killed Reza Berati we don’t know, and we aren’t likely to know for quite some time as the PNG investigating authorities move languidly into action. More than a week after Berati’s death, no autopsy has been performed; instead the body has been under guard by the same security company that might have played a role in his death.

Campbell’s no Colonel Jessup, invoked by Conroy in a reference to A Few Good Men, because Campbell is now a bureaucrat. It pays to read the transcript, because part of it is a process whereby Conroy — who is now a veteran shit-stirrer from both sides of the table in Senate committees — asks Campbell to explain exactly the nature of his role: is it military or is it civilian? Campbell seemed to say that when he’s directing non-military activities, he’s not military — that makes him a civilian, presumably — and only when he’s directing military activities is acting as a military officer, but he agreed that Operation Sovereign Borders was not a military operation but a “joint agency taskforce”.

So the Coalition’s outrage about Conroy’s decidedly anodyne description of Campbell participating in a “political cover-up” — to which Campbell professed to take great offence and at which point the hearing was simply shut down by the chair — is even stranger given Campbell’s role. This is the Coalition that routinely attacked then-treasury secretary Ken Henry as a partisan figure, but then feigns high dudgeon at the Martyrdom of St Angus. Perhaps the government thinks that, because of his military status, Campbell should be immune from criticism or scrutiny, which would be handy — the government could put military officers in charge of every portfolio and let all that well-polished brass deflect efforts to shine a light into the workings of government.

Like the Rudd government did with Henry, the Abbott government is exploiting Campbell as a kind of shield around their policies. But the point of the Henry shield was cover from political attacks on the Rudd government’s response to the financial crisis. The point of the Campbell shield is to manufacture the impression of a military operation (against, as Conroy noted, unarmed people in wooden boats) even when Campbell admits it isn’t, and to use that impression as an excuse to hide information.

There’s not a little justice, however, in Labor’s frustration at the extent to which the Coalition hides behind national security. Labor did precisely the same thing, routinely and blithely brushing aside attempts to scrutinise Australia’s national security establishment. One of the key figures in that hostility to scrutiny is Roger Wilkins, the smirk permanently hovering above a bow tie who heads the Attorney-General’s Department. The department’s poor record for even doing the basics under Wilkins has been repeatedly noted by Crikey, and he made another solid addition to it this week.

On Monday morning — under questioning from Labor senators Joe Ludwig and Kim Carr in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee — both Wilkins and Attorney-General George Brandis were at pains to explain that no cabinet documents from Labor’s time in government had been handed to the pink batts royal commission, although Brandis explained in detail the process that would apply if such documents were sought. Brandis explained:

“The way in which I envisage this would work is that in the event that a summons were received by another department or emanation of the government which would properly raise considerations of public interest immunity, then my advice would be sought.”

Wilkins was similarly forthright. Asked if any documents had been provided, he said: “Not from us.”

Well, like a Scott Morrison asylum seeker yarn, that didn’t take too long to unravel. Around 3.30 that afternoon, Labor Senator John Faulkner in another committee obtained from Prime Minister and Cabinet officials that not only had a summons from the royal commission been received by PM&C in January, but that it had provided 4500 documents and “less than a lever arch folder” of cabinet documents on January 31. Provided to whom?

“Documents were provided by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to Attorney-General’s Department, who are co-ordinating compliance, in conjunction with the Australian Government Solicitor, on the 31st.”

Attorney-General’s would hand the material to AGS, which would then hand it to the commission. Whether Brandis had been asked for advice, as he had “envisaged”, wasn’t clear. Presumably not.

So, had AGD given the material to the Australian Government Solicitor for handing to the commission? Back to Legal and Constitutional, where at 5.30 Wilkins found himself in the now-customary position of having to explain his previous evidence. Yes, the material had been given to AGS, which had handed it to the royal commission. Wilkins then denied he’d ever said “not from us”. Comparing the Hansard for the morning and afternoon sessions enables us to check:

Oh.

It turns out, when Wilkins said “not from us”, what he really meant was that the department itself had not been summonsed to provide documents, even though it had provided documents sent by other departments — an explanation Brandis felt obliged to make about Wilkins’s answer, “not to derogate from it but to clarify it and expand a little on it”.

It would be tempting to accuse Wilkins of a “political cover-up” as well, except that, like many of his efforts to avoid scrutiny in his appearances before committees, it was more like half-smart casuistry that ended up looking worse than the original matter he was trying to deflect attention from.

Wilkins was at home under Labor; he’s even more at home under the Abbott government, which regards scrutiny as an outrage and which uses any excuse to hide any information it can. Perhaps he should don a military uniform, too.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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30 comments

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30 thoughts on “Can’t handle the truth? On the front line in the Coalition’s war on scrutiny

  1. Electric Lardyland

    This Abbott in Wonderland government, really is a strange place, isn’t it? Apparently the Minister and his Chief of Staff, fronting up at alleged press conferences and committees, and relentlessly refusing to divulge any sort of information, is in no way, even closely related to a cover up. But not only is the culture of secrecy, not in any way a cover up, but even to suggest so is ‘deeply offensive’. Personally, I would have thought that if someone rises to the rank of Lieutenant General, then they would have developed a certain amount of toughness, but no, apparently Angus Campbell is such a delicate flower, that he is shocked, when a senator puts forward the proposition, that since he is attending a senate committee, he probably should answer some questions.
    Then our new Abbott in Wonderland political climate took an even stranger turn, when the outraged David Johnstone and Stuart Robert, demanded an apology from Steven Conroy. It seems in this strange new world, there has never been a single historical instance of military personnel keeping important information from the public, nor has there ever been a case of a high ranking military officer running an anti-democratic agenda, and of course, there has never, ever been any human rights abuses carried out by the military. So thus in Wonderland, to even suggest that maybe these assumptions aren’t totally accurate, is now cause for much frothing at the mouth condemnation.
    But perhaps the strangest manifestation of our new Abbott in Wonderland world, was when a commercial media pack chased Conroy down the corridor, while attempting to extract an apology. Really? Now wouldn’t you think, that since all Australian media organisations in the past, have loudly pontificated about the public’s right to know, then maybe their time would be better spent, trying to work out what is happening behind the veil of secrecy of Operation Sovereign Borders? But no, all we got was a group conforming to the government line and attacking the person who was standing up for the public’s, and the media’s, ‘right to know’.

  2. depository

    here’s another link to the transcript if anyone else is having trouble accessing it. And I do recommend it- it’s hilarious.

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