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Sep 24, 2013

Scott Morrison and his marionette set sail for secrecy

The Coalition's disdain for facts will eventually come to hurt them, especially if they run away from transparency -- as they've done with asylum seeker arrivals.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

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.

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30 thoughts on “Scott Morrison and his marionette set sail for secrecy

  1. klewso

    “Operation Ostrich”?

  2. klewso

    This was the game that so suited the Coal-ition – but now they’re the homies, so they want to move the goal posts?

  3. ian kemp

    When was the last time a major country appointed a senior military figure tasked with persecuting refugees? Please tell me it’s not just nazi germany and us?

  4. klewso

    It’s looking more like an episode of Thunderbirds every day? This is the one where Scott Tracy is overtaken by extraterrestrial intelligence.

  5. Interrobanging On

    “operate the operation Operation…” Did he really say that? What a suppository of wisdom Mr Morrison is.

    “…the party of Hawke and Keating transformed into the party of Rudd.” Good line, that one.

    No-one should be surprised that the new government will aim for secrecy and deceit and not only on this issue. It is in their DNA. And it worked with the Children Overboard lies in 2001 and I am sure they haven’t forgotten that.

    And now there is the real risk of failure they have to cover up. This is already unraveling, as the people on Christmas Island will let people know about arrivals.

    And even the people smugglers are sneering at the ‘operate the operation’ rationale for secrecy.

    But will the sheeple believe them…no doubt too many will.

  6. ben

    A more secret govt is also an offensive one; an insult to the people they serve.

    Why don’t media interviewers not simply ask Abbott each time to write down his answers?

  7. klewso

    How can you trust what he dedicates to writing?
    In that interview he said not to put too much faith in whatever he says – then he “said” that what he writes is more dependable?
    He’s every inch the political opportunist as his master, “honest” John Howard.

  8. DiddyWrote

    This is a very bad start indeed. The lesson Abbott and the rest of the Coalition have learnt from opposition is that,for them, there are no negative consequences for telling falsehoods and ignoring facts.
    They appear to quite happy to carry this attitude on into government.

    It’s like Karl Rove’s statement about the Bush presidency

    “when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

    And we know how well that turned out

  9. Stevo the Working Twistie

    They know they can’t possibly win the Culture Wars, the History Wars, the War on Drugs, the War on Terrorism or even the Cola Wars, so now bring on the Information Wars. What we don’t know might hurt us, but at least we won’t know it is hurting us. Oh, and no protesting either, you bloody anarchists.

  10. shepherdmarilyn

    Maybe the lazy media might remember they are supposed to investigate, I could not work out why the arrival of refugees by sea had to be announced when 6 million other people arriving were not.

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