Feb 24, 2014

Morrison’s use of asylum seeker death unravels as facts come back to bite

Scott Morrison's insistence on using an asylum seeker's death as a political tool has left him exposed, as his initial claim about Manus Island was quickly shown to be false.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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.

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49 thoughts on “Morrison’s use of asylum seeker death unravels as facts come back to bite

  1. drmick

    The politician of the year has stopped the boats (getting past the navy at least), and is getting rid of the evidence of any that did; one by one.

  2. Pedantic, Balwyn

    Morrison has become a master of selective fact reporting and his ability to get away with it hasn’t gone unnoticed by other Ministers like Joe Hockey, Fiona Nash and George Brandis, who have adopted similar practises.
    However integrity and honesty were never strong points for their leader as exemplified by Mr Abbott’s liberal use of tax-payer funded expenses, staements about SPC awards and the list goes on.

  3. michael r james

    Other than the total moral bankruptcy of Morrison and Abbott (presumably they’ll let their maker be their only judge? or maybe confess to Kevin Andrews, a lay preacher I think?) this shows up the bleeding obvious moral bankruptcy of governments (of both stripe) outsourcing this work to corporate thugs like G4S and Serco, and now Transfield. Not in the name of “efficiency” but in reality in an attempt to separate themselves from the repugnant job of running a gulag for innocent people. I suppose it works for the day to day brutalizing but as we see, it cannot work when things get truly nasty.

    Christine Milne responded quickly and appropriately when Abbott outrageously asked at a press conference “can anyone think of another example (other than the Pink Batts fiasco) when the Australian government killed people?”. She said that they have just been responsible for murder in Manus.
    Gerard Henderson on yesterday’s Insiders, in his usual weasly, grubby manner, tried to be a sanctimonious smartarse and said that Milne should take responsibility for the 1000 deaths of asylum seekers on Indonesian boats. Unfortunately no one countered his carefully prepared smear of merde. But the difference is huge: on the one hand a deliberate government-instigated gulag for people who have committed no crime, run by a government-appointed group of thugs. Compared to asylum seekers who freely choose to risk their own lives in search of release from hell in their home countries. We cannot say that they do not have the right to take that risk if they so choose.

  4. John64

    Saugoof: “The problem is that, like with the whole children overboard saga, the first lines he uttered will probably be all that ends up being remembered. How many people still believe asylum seekers threw their kids overboard? How many people stopped listening once they heard that Reza Berati is to blame for his own death?”

    @Saugoof: No, the real problem is, how many people care?

  5. MarilynJS

    Well the media have been less than useful, including you Bernard who took every opportunity to trash the greens over this sort of racist human dumping.

    Saugoof is correct though, there are still morons who think the Iraqis threw their kids into the sea, even though they are all now Australian citizens who told the truth years ago.

    They think David Hicks is a terrorist even though that has proved to be a lie and they always knew it was a lie.

    And it astounds me that not one media outlet has yet pointed out that Manus Island is not our frigging border.

  6. Deipnosoph

    AndyBob – just wanted to point out that somehow the word “grenade” got inserted in your post.

  7. Jimmy

    Also there was an intersting editorial in the Hun yesterday (although I only read the first paragraph before I couldn’t take it any more), it’s basic premise was that no one cares about the refugee getting killed and it’s rationale for this was that there was an outcry on twitter which in apparently bizarro world.

    Anyway it seems we won’t be seeing much on this from News Ltd.

  8. Observation

    Surely there needs to be an investigation into the G4S company, which I understand is affiliated with private company currently employed to run Wa’s prisons. It is now reported that an ex military man from Sri Lanka is managing MI.

  9. Matt Hardin

    I know now Morrison avoids briefing the press. His Freudian slips

    [a great deal of application and determination to maintain a situation which was very tense and very stressful]

    make it obvious what he means even as he uses more obfuscatory language than Sir Humphrey Appleby.

    (I am sure he wanted to say “manage” but his conscience wouldn’t let him)

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