Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been brought undone by the characteristics that make him the quintessential Abbott government minister: his inexperience, his aggression and his disdain for facts.

In his first press conference last Tuesday following the killing of Reza Berati on Manus Island, Morrison saw in Berati’s death — which, he acknowledged, was a tragedy — an opportunity to criticise asylum seekers. Berati had “put himself at risk” by leaving the detention centre, Morrison explained:

“[T]his was a very dangerous situation where people decided to protest in a very violent way and to take themselves outside the centre and place themselves at great risk. In those situations our security people need to undertake the tasks that they need to undertake to restore the facility to a place of safety, and equally those who are maintaining the safety of the security environment outside the centre need to use their powers and various accoutrements that they have available to them in order to restore in the way that is provided for under PNG law.”

For Morrison, the death of Berati was a salutary lesson, a sort of Aesop’s Fable for detainees — don’t leave the centre or you’ll be dealt with “in the way that is provided for under PNG law”. But the story began unravelling within hours. At a second media conference late on Tuesday afternoon, he admitted under questioning from journalists — not in his opening statement — that Berati might not have been killed outside the detention centre, saying “where physically this took place based on the information I have received this afternoon, that is a matter where there are some conflicting reports”.

Journalist: What are the conflicting reports?

Morrison: Well, the reports are conflicting on where the individual might have been at the time.

Journalist: Either inside or outside.

Morrison: I am saying that there are conflicting reports …

Eager to avoid a “children overboard” situation, Morrison’s department had clearly alerted him to the fact that it was unclear where Berati was when he received his fatal wounds. Nonetheless, Morrison couldn’t help himself — he continued to push the narrative that fault rested with Berati:

“When people engage in violent acts and in disorderly behaviour and breach fences and get involved in that sort of behaviour and go to the other side of the fence, well they will be subject to law enforcement as applies in Papua New Guinea.”

Moreover, Morrison was full of praise for security contractor G4S. At his first Tuesday media conference he wanted to:

“… stress that the actions taken by our people there overnight showed a great deal of courage, showed a great deal of strength, and a great deal of application and determination to maintain a situation which was very tense and very stressful. The people who serve in these centres do so under a great deal of stress, and I particularly want to thank all of those who are involved with our service providers.”

Morrison also relied on G4S’ claims — now proven to be wrong — that no locals had come into the detention centre. On the weekend, Morrison was forced to admit that his claim about Berati was incorrect, releasing a statement at the unusual time of late Saturday evening:

“I wish to confirm that contrary to initial reports received, I have received further information that indicates that the majority of the riotous behaviour that occurred, and the response to that behaviour to restore order to the centre, took place within the perimeter of the centre. As advised on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 18, I indicated that I had received further information which meant that I could no longer confirm that the deceased man sustained his injuries outside the centre. The further information I have now received casts further doubt on the initial advice that his injuries were sustained outside the centre.”

And yesterday, stung by G4S’ incorrect statement, Morrison declined to declare confidence in the company he had been lauding only days before. He also had great difficulty finding a form of words with which to answer the question of whether he could guarantee the safety of detainees. It’s hard to guarantee the safety of people being guarded by an organisation that gets basic facts wrong.

Morrison, it should be recalled, is a relative political novice, having only been in Parliament since 2007. He had no ministerial experience of any kind before taking over the large and high-profile Immigration portfolio, as well as taking on the absurd pseudo-military role of leader of “Operation Sovereign Borders”. A more experienced politician might have sensed the problem of relying on initial reports from what was obviously a complex and obscure set of circumstances; a more experienced politician might have noted the reports circulating among refugee advocates and, while appreciating their bias, have wondered if the consistency and insistence about the role of locals in the violence might have had some substance.

Instead, Morrison elected to charge ahead with the aggression that is the trademark of this government, and seek to turn Berati’s death to his advantage by, in effect, claiming Berati had brought his fate on himself by running away. Perhaps Morrison was unable to do anything else. His attitude to sharing information isn’t one based on accountability or transparency, but on advantage — what advantage will providing information give to the government, what advantage will it provide to people smugglers, what advantage will it provide to a hostile media? Since becoming Immigration Minister, he has resisted releasing any information of any kind about asylum seekers beyond that which can be used to score political points.

And while his Manus Island story was unravelling, Morrison was troubled by another problem: his department had been discovered to have provided personal information about asylum seekers in publicly accessible documents. Morrison was appropriately unhappy about his department’s potentially life-threatening error, but he and his staff promptly exacerbated the problem by identifying the documents containing the information, something media outlets had elected not to do.

Morrison’s disregard for facts as anything other than political tools is one the Prime Minister has long shared, and a trait that has complicated the Coalition’s transition to government. It’s one thing to be dismissive of inconvenient facts when you’re in opposition and have no responsibility. But as Morrison has discovered, you can’t be dismissive of them when you’re in charge.

Peter Fray

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