The Politics    Friday, October 30, 2015

Silent treatment

By Michael Lucy

Silent treatment
Our immigration regime has been wrapped in secrecy for too long

Governments always like to control the flow of information, whether through public announcements or private leaks, but this government has always seemed to want the flow to simply stop. Nowhere has this desire been stronger than in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It wasn’t long after becoming immigration minister in 2013 and starting the grandiosely named Operation Sovereign Borders that Scott Morrison started point-blank refusing to answer journalists’ questions about “on-water operations”.

Did a boat arrive? On-water operations. Did a boat sink? On-water operations. Did the sun rise over the Pacific this morning? On-water operations. Soon enough the cloak of silence descended over the offshore immigration camps on Manus and Nauru. (The government of Nauru, by now not much more than a DIBP subcontractor, went so far as to institute a de facto ban on foreign journalists entering the country.) The only information from Australia’s various fronts in the war on refugees came from whistleblowers, and painted a grim picture. Not to worry, though: new laws have created heavy penalties for that sort of whistleblowing activity, so we shouldn’t be hearing too much more about these offshore operations.

For the most part Scott Morrison got away with it, too. Journalists can’t force politicians to answer questions, after all, and they will ask the same question only so many times before they move on – they have to, or their only story every day would have been “Minister refuses to answer question”. Morrison’s success was due to his understanding of this fact – he’s a good politician, which is not the same as being a good person – plus his aggressive swagger and forceful personality.

“Swagger” and “personality” are not words often associated with Morrison’s successor Peter Dutton, however. When claims were made in June that Australian officials had paid people smugglers to take their passengers back to Indonesia, Dutton initially said they were false. Yesterday, when the claims resurfaced after an Amnesty International report gave them extra credibility, he didn’t deny that the incident had occurred and instead retreated to circumlocutions about his confidence that no Australian laws or treaties had been broken.

The whole business must have been weighing on him overnight, as this morning he succumbed to media pressure and made a statement. It wasn’t about what actually happened on that boat in May, however: it was just some defensive spluttering how Amnesty’s report is an “ideological attack” that “goes beyond the pale”.

The careful lack of denial by Dutton and foreign minister Julie Bishop seems to indicate that the payments were made, more or less as reported. No specific detail of the Amnesty report has been challenged, merely the claim that the alleged actions were not illegal.

This story goes to the heart of the government’s obsession with secrecy, which the change of prime ministers does not seem to have altered. A government isn’t like a person, with a reasonable desire for privacy; everything a government does should be public unless there is some good reason for it not to be. Dutton has given us no reason to trust him and no good reason for secrecy, not even Morrison’s old half-hearted justification that revealing operational details would help people smugglers.

Our immigration regime has become a law unto itself that rules our northern approaches with apparent disregard for the mores of the folks back home. Dutton believes that merely to question the actions of the Border Force is some kind of disloyalty. If Malcolm Turnbull is serious about fixing the idiocies of the Abbott government, he’d do well to step away from the agile startups for a minute and think about the role of transparency and accountability in the Australia of the 21st century.

 

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Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.

@MmichaelLlucy

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