The “shipping news”, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison called it yesterday, in seeking to dismiss transparency about the arrival of boats carrying asylum seekers. Having quickly worked out, as news organisations and social media switched to directly sourcing information from people on Christmas Island, that his attempt to blockade all information about arriving boats would fail, Morrison had reluctantly decided a weekly “briefing” on his “Operation Sovereign Borders” confection would be necessary.
How real-time transparency about boat arrivals, as practised by Labor, somehow gave people smugglers an advantage that weekly briefings did not, he struggled to explain. When pressed on whose idea weekly briefings were, and other matters around transparency, Angus Campbell, the be-uniformed marionette cast as the lead performer in the Coalition’s refugees-as-military-problem drama, similarly struggled. His mouth opened, incoherent verbiage poured out, his mouth closed. They could at least have given their leading man some media training.
“We’re going to operate the operation Operation Sovereign Borders,” Morrison added helpfully after one particularly unintelligible Campbell answer.
And, indeed, the word “operate” was on high-rotation yesterday, because that’s the rationale for the government’s lack of transparency; Morrison went so far as to say they wouldn’t even reveal whether they had succeeded or failed in “turning back the boats” for “operational reasons”. “Operational reasons” is what security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies hide behind to avoid public scrutiny: providing anything other than the vaguest information might harm their operations — indeed, as Morrison and Campbell hinted yesterday, place Australian personnel in danger.
Labor of course wasn’t averse to exploiting national security for its own ends. Remember the unfortunate Mark Dreyfus using national security to justify continuing to advertise the government’s PNG solution into the caretaker period? Dreyfus actually linked saving lives to continuing the domestic PNG advertising campaign, insisting it was a “national security matter”.
Transparency as threat; an old, old tune.
“Being unbound by facts is a joyous feeling, and Abbott gloried in the freedom, and his colleagues along with him.”
It’s an early theme of this government, which publicly mulled delaying MYEFO into the New Year (NYE-FO?) so as not to frighten consumers with more bad budget news. Your precious budget transparency might cost jobs, see. The Climate Commission, intended to provide independent and reliable information on climate change, will be shuttered.
This, like the dearth of women in cabinet, is the Coalition governing consistent with how it conducted itself in opposition. The Abbott-model opposition regarded facts as wholly dispensable in its campaign against Labor — to be embraced wholeheartedly if they assisted in the task of attacking Labor (as Morrison did with boat arrival numbers), to be ignored or invented if not. The mere truth or falsity of a claim advanced by the Coalition was irrelevant; as Abbott himself noted in 2010, his own words couldn’t be believed; you had to get it from him in written form, although that proved no greater a guarantee of truth.
Being unbound by facts is a joyous feeling, and Abbott gloried in the freedom, and his colleagues along with him. Sooner or later, however, it comes with a price — losing your capacity to argue effectively. Rather than use its arrival in government to shed its disdain for facts, the Coalition appears to be going further in rejecting them. The Coalition is thus slowly doing to itself what Labor did to itself so effectively — let its communication skills atrophy, so that the party of Hawke and Keating transformed into the party of Rudd.
There’s another problem that arises when you throw blankets like “operational matters” and “national security” over transparency and accountability. The greater the secrecy in which policies are implemented, money spent and government personnel operate, the more likely abuses, incompetence and corruption are to occur, with officials and their political masters less concerned about the threat of public scrutiny.
Whether or not Morrison and his colleagues are being smart, being politically savvy, in invoking dire consequences as an excuse for reducing transparency, in the long-run a more secret government is a less effective one.