You want to know a REAL cover-up? What about the Black Saturday bushfires? 173 people died. Australians, too, not wife-r-ping towelheads. Apparently some of those fires were deliberately lit. And months on, John Brumby and Kevin Rudd still haven’t told us what really happened and who was responsible.

What are they hiding?

What’s that? Something about coronial inquiries? Criminal investigations? Well, they WOULD say that, wouldn’t they.

Surely the Government is covering up SOMETHING about the explosion aboard the boat carrying dozens of Afghans last week. Maybe Helen Liu was involved. Or the bikies who entered the Lodge. There’s another cover-up. The Prime Minister hasn’t explained that either.

The incessant demands for the Government to reveal what happened aboard the vessel are absurd. There was an explosion. People died. Someone caused it, either accidentally or intentionally. Prosecutions may ensue. If and when someone on that boat is brought to trial for what occurred, the chances of a fair trial (in Darwin, despite Colin Barnett seeming to think this has some special West Australian significance) are diminished every time someone opens their mouth.

And if the explosion resulted because the people aboard thought they were going to be returned to Indonesia, what exactly does that demonstrate in relation to the Government’s handling of border protection, except that it is dealing with desperate, ignorant people?

What exactly is being covered up?

The media know this perfectly well. The same sense of entitlement that prompts the press to regularly breach restrictions on reporting of criminal cases is at work here, the view that waiting for relevant authorities to do their job isn’t good enough, that the public has the right to know whatever half-baked, ill-informed, speculative rubbish the press can lay hands on.

But there’s another aspect driving the media on here, particularly in the Press Gallery. This Government is obsessive about information control, and running a media agenda that perfectly suits it, no matter how trivial the issue. Apart from the occasional complaint, the Gallery has had no alternative but to endure this information control freakery that emanates from the Prime Minister’s Office. But the events last week give the media an opportunity for some payback. They can keep demanding answers, and the longer the Government declines to provide them, the more it looks like it is hiding something. On that basis, the Government deserves no sympathy whatsoever, even if it is doing the right thing.

If nothing else, last week confirmed that as a nation we still have some sort of complex about boat people. The Left seems to want to refight the issue, confident it can win this time where it lost under Howard — a defeat it blames on the underlying racism of the average Australian, brought to the surface by that necromancer Howard. The Right is grateful for something it can beat an immensely popular Labor Government with. Both sides are defaulting to the sort of positions adopted in previous years. Displaying yet again his mastery of communication, Rudd cut through that last week with his “rot in hell” line about people smugglers, deflecting the debate away from whether he is soft on border protection.

But declaring a war on people smugglers is also a distraction. Like drug dealers, people smugglers merely react to demand that would exist whether or not they are there to meet it. And the criminals running boats to Australia aren’t even particularly significant in the scheme of things — much bigger networks exist to smuggle in sex workers, for example, and they arrive invisibly through our airports.

Whenever conflict generates more refugees in other parts of the world, there’ll be more people trying to get into Australia in addition to the thousands of illegal immigrants and visa overstayers who come every year. Short of closing our airports to non-Australians and sinking the boats of asylum seekers, there isn’t a great deal we can do about it. Malcolm Turnbull’s shameful re-embracing on temporary protection visas won’t do a thing to slow the numbers of people coming by air and sea.

The debate won’t even pan out in the same way as it did eight years ago. The media cycle has accelerated since then. Issues have a more limited life. Voters are even less trusting of politicians and the media. And the Government is relying on that when it refuses to speculate on what happened up near Ashmore Reef.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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