The Border Force has started putting out podcasts to counter what Immigration Minister Peter Dutton describes as “a bit of a jihad” from Fairfax, and the “biased” questioning and subsequent “kangaroo court” of an ABC program.
The podcasts cover riveting topics — such as training sniffer dog puppies or regional maritime co-operation — but are more distinguished by not detailing with what lots of people want to know about: exactly how boats are being stopped and what’s going on in Nauru.
It’s difficult to imagine the community paying much genuine attention to these off-piste topics. The resultant immaterial podcast is like publishing Playboy without pictures: nobody is much interested. The releases serve to remind us more about what is not being said rather than what is. Attempting to change the subject is a clumsy communication strategy. Ignoring contentious issues while simulating transparency by issuing electronic irrelevancies is Dutton dressed as spam.
It is hard not to feel sorry for a department with broad ranging responsibilities and a communications staff of 82 people whose main job seems to be finding new ways to keep schtum for the minister.
At the core of this silly distraction tactic is the issue of quite how secret governments should be.
Clandestine behaviour by the apparatus of the state on the basis that the end justifies the means seems defensible with imminent life-endangering terror threats or wars, but should it be central to long-term programs to reduce irregular immigration and, if so, why?
There is a common view that rights and freedoms, including freedom of information are unlimited. This is not true.
Under international law, certain rights are “non-derogable”, meaning they always apply in all situations. These include things like the right to life, the prohibition of torture and ill treatment, the right to recognition as a person before the law, and the right to freedom from retroactive application of criminal laws.
Other rights, including freedom of information and association are not absolute and may be suspended or restricted by the state, most usually at times of grave national emergency.
Counterbalancing this, any such restriction must have a basis in national law, pursue a legitimate aim, allow for effective remedies, have guarantees against abuse, be non-discriminatory and, most relevantly, be necessary and proportionate to the aim.
In this case, the principle of proportionality seems simple: does a pragmatic increase in effective deterrence outweigh the need for regime transparency? Is success an excuse? What is the moral imperative underpinning this decision, and to which other programs ought it apply?
At the last election, by popular demand, both major parties promised to curb irregular immigration by sea, an objective that necessitates policies of overt cruelty.
If Government can deliver that result without the tactics causing moral anguish and community guilt thus substantial backlash from uncommitted voters, then it’s a political win. If those tactics are too contentious for soft and swinging voters to endorse at the next poll, then it’s a political loss.
In the absence of hard facts, it seems entirely plausible that the reason Border Force tactics to contain irregular migration are being kept secret is not to outfox people smugglers, but rather to contain outrage from Australians who might conclude that what is being done in their name is objectionable, inhumane and does not justify the outcome.
The truth of exactly what is happening to deter irregular marine migration is unknown to public and media, so that vacuum is being filled by suspicions of payoffs, intimidations and dodgy dealings. It’s a ministerial and departmental no-win; little wonder there’s desire to change the subject with podcast puff pieces.
In my view at least, transparency about what is being done by government takes priority. In all but the direst and information-sensitive emergencies, the end does not justify the means — that slope is way too slippery. Balancing these conflicting priorities ultimately presents a complex zugzwang for decision makers, perhaps driving a bid to stall by attempting to change the subject.
In the trade-off between stemming irregular immigration or freedom of information, I lean to the latter, and although it may well not be the majority opinion, I’m no orphan.
This stretch of “on-water matters” secrecy seems a tipping point in state power. We are a country of grown-ups, capable of balancing complex arguments and making rational decisions.
Obscuring genuine concerns with irrelevant podcasts to simulate openness compounds the insult of secrecy.
It is time to experiment with truth.