Feb 26, 2014

Can’t handle the truth? On the front line in the Coalition’s war on scrutiny

The soldier heading "Operation Sovereign Borders" is indeed engaged in a political cover-up. Other bureaucrats aren't quite so skilled. Crikey compares some key hearings in Canberra yesterday.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

You could fault opposition defence spokesman Stephen Conroy’s taste in movies, but not his choice of words in describing Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, head of "Operation Sovereign Borders", as participating in a "political cover-up" in his refusal to share information about the policy he oversees. That policy includes the process of towing back -- however you want to define it -- asylum seeker boats to Indonesia, during which our vessels repeatedly entered Indonesia's territorial waters, censorship of media attempts even to cover Campbell's activities and indefinitely detaining those who have reached Australia on Nauru and Manus Island. It was on the latter, of course, that one was killed and many others injured last week by either the security officials meant to be guarding them, PNG police or local Manus Islanders allowed into the detention centre. Who exactly killed Reza Berati we don’t know, and we aren't likely to know for quite some time as the PNG investigating authorities move languidly into action. More than a week after Berati’s death, no autopsy has been performed; instead the body has been under guard by the same security company that might have played a role in his death. Campbell’s no Colonel Jessup, invoked by Conroy in a reference to A Few Good Men, because Campbell is now a bureaucrat. It pays to read the transcript, because part of it is a process whereby Conroy -- who is now a veteran shit-stirrer from both sides of the table in Senate committees -- asks Campbell to explain exactly the nature of his role: is it military or is it civilian? Campbell seemed to say that when he’s directing non-military activities, he’s not military -- that makes him a civilian, presumably -- and only when he’s directing military activities is acting as a military officer, but he agreed that Operation Sovereign Borders was not a military operation but a "joint agency taskforce". So the Coalition’s outrage about Conroy’s decidedly anodyne description of Campbell participating in a "political cover-up" -- to which Campbell professed to take great offence and at which point the hearing was simply shut down by the chair -- is even stranger given Campbell’s role. This is the Coalition that routinely attacked then-treasury secretary Ken Henry as a partisan figure, but then feigns high dudgeon at the Martyrdom of St Angus. Perhaps the government thinks that, because of his military status, Campbell should be immune from criticism or scrutiny, which would be handy -- the government could put military officers in charge of every portfolio and let all that well-polished brass deflect efforts to shine a light into the workings of government. Like the Rudd government did with Henry, the Abbott government is exploiting Campbell as a kind of shield around their policies. But the point of the Henry shield was cover from political attacks on the Rudd government’s response to the financial crisis. The point of the Campbell shield is to manufacture the impression of a military operation (against, as Conroy noted, unarmed people in wooden boats) even when Campbell admits it isn’t, and to use that impression as an excuse to hide information. There’s not a little justice, however, in Labor’s frustration at the extent to which the Coalition hides behind national security. Labor did precisely the same thing, routinely and blithely brushing aside attempts to scrutinise Australia’s national security establishment. One of the key figures in that hostility to scrutiny is Roger Wilkins, the smirk permanently hovering above a bow tie who heads the Attorney-General’s Department. The department’s poor record for even doing the basics under Wilkins has been repeatedly noted by Crikey, and he made another solid addition to it this week. On Monday morning -- under questioning from Labor senators Joe Ludwig and Kim Carr in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee -- both Wilkins and Attorney-General George Brandis were at pains to explain that no cabinet documents from Labor’s time in government had been handed to the pink batts royal commission, although Brandis explained in detail the process that would apply if such documents were sought. Brandis explained:
"The way in which I envisage this would work is that in the event that a summons were received by another department or emanation of the government which would properly raise considerations of public interest immunity, then my advice would be sought."
Wilkins was similarly forthright. Asked if any documents had been provided, he said: "Not from us." Well, like a Scott Morrison asylum seeker yarn, that didn’t take too long to unravel. Around 3.30 that afternoon, Labor Senator John Faulkner in another committee obtained from Prime Minister and Cabinet officials that not only had a summons from the royal commission been received by PM&C in January, but that it had provided 4500 documents and "less than a lever arch folder" of cabinet documents on January 31. Provided to whom?
"Documents were provided by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to Attorney-General's Department, who are co-ordinating compliance, in conjunction with the Australian Government Solicitor, on the 31st."
Attorney-General’s would hand the material to AGS, which would then hand it to the commission. Whether Brandis had been asked for advice, as he had "envisaged", wasn't clear. Presumably not. So, had AGD given the material to the Australian Government Solicitor for handing to the commission? Back to Legal and Constitutional, where at 5.30 Wilkins found himself in the now-customary position of having to explain his previous evidence. Yes, the material had been given to AGS, which had handed it to the royal commission. Wilkins then denied he’d ever said "not from us". Comparing the Hansard for the morning and afternoon sessions enables us to check:

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

30 thoughts on “Can’t handle the truth? On the front line in the Coalition’s war on scrutiny

  1. klewso

    “Appleby Syndrome”

  2. rhwombat

    The General has no clothes. Anyone remember Westmoreland & Haig? Campbell is discovering what it’s like to be the beard for the Party of Entitlement. It’s informative to look at the background of those attacking Conroy.

  3. Electric Lardyland

    And just a thought, how many of our brave media pack, chased General Campbell down the street? You know, since he was refusing to answer questions in the committee hearings, maybe it was while for the media to enquire why? Or maybe it was worthwhile to ask if he knew how the navy repeatedly wandered into Indonesian waters? Or maybe he knew something about the death at Manus? Or would he like to comment on the behaviour of private security firms?
    Unfortunately, I suspect the answer to my original question is zero.

  4. klewso

    Remember Molan going on Lateline to slag off Labor policy, a fortnight before coming out hand-in hand with Toady and Scrott to open up their bag of “Sod the Recorders and Bop the Stoats”?
    Isn’t “Conservatism in the ranks” a well known and accepted “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell” embarrassment?

  5. Liamj

    The LNP thinks itself smart getting a military puppet to front their war on refugees, but they’ll both take a generation to recover from the shame.

  6. rhwombat

    Good point, Liam. The ADF survived the consequences of the Howard years, including “children overboard”, Bougainville, E. Timor, Iraq & Afghanistan with impressive professionalism and openness, engendering considerable respect from the Australian and international community. The LNP has now publicly traduced Campbell as a propaganda puppet, and thrown the RAN overboard for following the directives from the unelected plutocrats, like Murdoch & Rinehart, who run the LNP through their un/ex-elected fixers, like Credlin, Furnival, Downer & Minchin. There goes the ADF.

  7. Openslather

    The Liberal National Parties are like other secret societies Skull & Bones, Bilderberg Group, Illuminati, Freemasons, Opus Dei etc, so to fit in with those secret societies, may I suggest the Australian LNP change their name and forever refer to themselves as the “Omnium-gatherum of Feckless Snollygosters”. Our ADF could never do wrong, could they? The Skype and Jedi council are but 2 recent scandals that says they are no angels. Lt General Campbell is Morrison’s marionette, dumb arse just hangs around awaiting to be activated by either Abbott or Morrison, it depends on who’s pulling his strings that day! Abbott really is Australia’s equivalent to George W Bush, just like George he’s a person who has no compunction about being a full-blooded LIAR.

  8. AR

    All the comment above on the idiocy of the hagiographing the ADF overlooks almost exactly the same words and tendentious mendacity used by the member fior Wentworth in describing Ziggy Stardyust… sorry, tuther one.
    Quoth the Blue (transfused) Blood Raven (maven?), “our most respected businessman” (oxymoron shorly?)was defended for his B/S about the NBN.
    The simple point was made on RN’s LNL prog. about Richard Ailes, “lie, lie and emphasise, then repeat” (but for some strange reasont ehxtian apologist Andrew West didn’t say “umm, that sounds familiar down here under..”.
    So we have the A/G lying, on several counts, the PM … being TT, the reptiles of mudorc’s meeja doing.. wotever it is they do, and the country …ummm
    I’ve written it a dozen times but,”Poor Bugger, my Country” but, you voted for these execrable bunch.

  9. klewso

    Like experimenting with cigarettes – you know they’re bad for you – but for the inexperienced and easily led among us, it had to be done, just to “see what it feels like”?
    I think the country is going to cough up this mob?

  10. klewso

    My hope is that voters wise up and give each party one term in government then throw them out – ’til one of them can demonstrate they can actually put the national interest (of the majority of the country) before those of the minority, of vested interests of party and sponsors.

Leave a comment

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details