How far does this government’s obsession with secrecy extend? And what’s the link between national security and a crass pre-election photo-op for the Prime Minister and South Australian Opposition Leader and failure-to-be Steven Marshall?

On March 13, the Prime Minister went to South Australia’s RAAF base Edinburgh to announce the acquisition of Triton drone aircraft, in the company of Air Marshal Geoff Brown. Entirely legitimate, of course — indeed, where else but an RAAF base should such an announcement be made — and the Tritons will be based at Edinburgh. All good.

Except, immediately upon finishing the announcement, Abbott walked a few metres away inside the same hanger and then stood in front of a Liberal Party backdrop to re-announce the Triton purchase, with Steven Marshall, and then campaign for him.

“I’m pleased to be joined today by my South Australian colleague, the Leader, Steven Marshall and I am hopeful of being able to work constructively with Steven Marshall as premier after Saturday… Steven wants to work constructively with the Commonwealth; the incumbent Premier thinks that his role is to fight with the Commonwealth. Well I think the Australian people want better than that. I think the South Australian people want better than that.”

Is it appropriate to conduct party political events on RAAF bases? Labor Senator Stephen Conroy asked the Defence Minister, the apparently permanently enraged David Johnston, about it at estimates a fortnight ago. Johnston initially refused to even acknowledge that the visit had taken place, despite the transcript of the events being on the Prime Minister’s own website.

Conroy: Can you confirm that this event took place at the RAAF Base Edinburgh on 13 March, two days before the SA election?
Johnston: I most certainly cannot.
Conroy: Sorry, you cannot?
Johnston: I cannot.
Conroy: I wrote to you about this. I asked you questions in the past.
Johnston: I cannot confirm that this photograph is anywhere at all. I was not there. I do not know where the photograph is. Quite frankly, that should have been a very obvious answer to you.
Conroy: Can I go to the transcript of the Prime Minister’s press conference where he says: “It was terrific to arrive here at RAAF Base Edinburgh today in one of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Wedgetail aircraft.” Further in the same press conference on that day: “Here at RAAF Base Edinburgh we are basing, in the years to come, the Triton unmanned surveillance aircraft.” Does that assist you in your knowledge?
Johnston: Not one bit.

Fortunately, Air Marshal Brown was actually attending estimates, and was able to confirm that the event took place, and all took place in the one hanger. Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson explained that there were guidelines around the use of defence personnel for political purposes, but conducting partisan activities on military bases was OK if no military personnel were involved.

At length, after Conroy repeatedly raised the prospect of going around military facilities and conducting Labor events, Johnston acknowledged that there may be an issue with the current guidelines and that he would consult the Defence Department about them. It may indeed be the case that the government will decide it’s not enough just to ensure the military don’t get roped into partisan events, but that they’re not suitable for defence facilities at all.

But Conroy went further and FOIed the briefing prepared for the Prime Minister by his office for the event. Inevitably, the old black highlighter so beloved in FOI circles has been used liberally. But what’s left of the document confirms that the Triton announcement ended and the partisan media conference began with no break except however long it took for the PM to walk over to the banner nearby. And while the running order details for the announcement about an important Defence acquisition are mostly available, the running order details for all of the presser with Marshall have been deleted.

Why? The decision-maker, chief of staff Peta Credlin, cites the need to protect the defence of the Commonwealth under s.33 of the FOI Act and the need to protect public safety under s.37.

“The document contains Defence Force (including RAAF) information, the disclosure of which could cause damage to the defence of Australia.”

Except, that seems to apply more to the bit about a party political press conference than about the drones we’ve just bought. All part of the remorseless growth of secrecy under this government, on the pretext of national security.