29th November 2013
By Clint Howitt
Guest Writer for Wake Up World
Australia’s most respected political commentators have criticised the Coalition Government’s excessive secrecy, a political culture that bodes badly for the Australian democracy.
Media Alarm Bells
When so many of Australia’s most respected political journalists and commentators raise their voices on a single issue, it’s time to sit up and take notice.
In the weeks since the Coalition assumed office, repeated criticism has been made of the escalating secrecy surrounding the Abbott regime.
And frustrated by the way detailed information about the workings of government has slowed to a trickle, prominent members of the media have been lining up to slam the mushroom treatment they and the public are receiving from the fledgling administration.
James Massola maintains:
‘The new Coalition government has established an early – and unwelcome – habit of shutting down debates it doesn’t want to have.’
On the muzzling of ministers by the PM’s office from speaking spontaneously to the media, Michelle Grattan observed:
‘It was the ultimate “get stuffed”.’
Annabelle Crabbe asked:
‘If a boat is turned around, and nobody is told about it, did it happen at all?’
Laurie Oakes has been particularly scathing of the abrasive and arrogant tone of Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, toward the media when he is pressed for details on asylum seekers.
Mark Kenny at The Age newspaper commented on the government’s unwillingness to discuss the rorting of travel allowances:
‘It is jarring to see how quickly the public’s reasonable expectation of probity in its political representatives has been superseded by the reflex to secrecy and self-protection in the new political class.’
Lenore Taylor has been critical of the way Treasury will no longer release its advice to the Treasurer:
‘Treasury has advised that the “blue book” – one of two documents prepared during an election campaign by each department for each of its possible incoming ministers – will not be released under freedom of information laws.’
Mungo MacCallum observed:
‘It is now clear that the underlying principle of the Abbott Government is to be ignorance: not only are the masses to be kept as far as possible in the dark, but the Government itself does not want to know.’
Barrie Cassidy asked:
‘How long can the ministerial sound of silence last?’
Sean Parnell wrote:
‘A new era of government secrecy has been ushered in …’
It is reasonable to ask what has been going on to make senior political commentators so alarmed about the descent into political darkness.
Abbott’s Secret Agenda
For six years in Opposition, Abbott and his chief of staff carefully crafted the public’s perceptions to make Labor appear as if it was in a constant state of imminent collapse. In-your-face fear-mongering was ramped up with wildly overblown rhetoric.
Each day was made to look like just another episode in a rolling catastrophe. In this task it was aided and abetted by the Coalition’s de facto publicity machine — the Murdoch media.
But it required steely discipline to force everyone in the party to hold the leader’s line.
Now that the highly disciplined approach has paid off, the ruling cabal within the Office of the Prime Minister appears to have become addicted to the power and control it wielded in opposition. But now the tactics need to be tailored to suit the circumstances of government. Their new role requires an image which implies that it is responsible, capable and trustworthy.
Dissent within the ranks, embarrassing gaffes or undisclosed intentions must never see the light of day. The new strategy can be summed up in a single word — secrecy.
Such is the clout of Abbott’s inner sanctum that secrecy has now become an obsession that has manifested itself in a raft of heavy-handed authoritarian measures. Cumulatively, they create the unsettling spectre of a closed government.
Centralising Control on the Release of Information
To ensure absolute uniformity in the government’s messages, all media appearances by coalition members have to be cleared by Abbott’s office. Naturally, this directive itself was meant to be kept secret. It wasn’t. It was leaked to the Fairfax press.
Abbott’s press secretary James Boyce sent an email to ministerial advisers notifying them that:
‘All media coordination and requests should go through (the PM’s press office). This covers all national media interviews on television, radio and print.’
This process will determine which ministers will appear on which programs, what they will be allowed to say and how they will pitch it.
Not only is this insulting to the Coalition’s most senior members, it will also effectively gag them or severely limit what they can say. Nothing untoward will be divulged to the public.
Shrouding Boat Arrivals in Military Secrecy
After all the tub thumping by Scott Morrison before the election, the issue of asylum seeker boat arrivals was always going to be a hot potato for the new government.
To take the heat out of the issue, the Coalition has created the illusion that seeking asylum is a matter of national security rather than a humanitarian issue. This gave the government the pretext for resorting to the cynical exercise known as Operation Sovereign Borders.
The whole matter has now been militarised. Forget about this being both inappropriate and disproportionate. What is important is that, as a military operation, it can qualify for a security classification of ‘Secret’. The standard non-reply from Minister Morrison now is that it is “an operational matter”.
Under Morrison, new asylum seeker boat arrivals get an airing only once a week with minimal accompanying detail. Questions to the Customs and the Immigration Department about whether any boats have arrived in recent days are referred back to the Minister’s office.
As a result, the information flow on arrivals has almost completely dried up, even in Morrison’s weekly press briefings. The previous government, however, was completely open about the number of arrivals and issued media alerts every time a boat arrived.
We’re well aware of that because, with each new boat, Morrison would use the figures to harangue the former Labor government about losing control of our borders. It is gross hypocrisy on his part to now restrict the media’s access to the numbers.
Labor’s immigration spokesman Tony Burke summed it up well:
“The policy, I thought, was that they would stop the boats not hide the information.”
He went on to reveal how frustrated “journalists from all publications” were about being denied access to the details on arrivals and processing.
Morrison’s weekly media briefings have degenerated to almost farcical levels. Morrison releases factual details as if he was a selfish kid with a bag of lollies, refusing to dole out treats he was supposed to share.
“It should simply be a matter of course that, whether the news is good for the government or bad for the government, the Australian people are told.”
After previously threatening to gag residents on Christmas Island who report boat arrivals, Morrison has now threatened to send asylum seekers who speak to the media offshore.
Demonising Asylum Seekers
Morrison has recently decreed that public servants must replace the neutral term “asylum seekers” with the pejorative term “illegal immigrants”.
Numerous human rights spokespersons have insisted that people have a legal right under the UN Refugee Convention to seek asylum in another country if their government is threatening their lives in their own. Morrison never mentions this.
Following his reasoning, Jewish people escaping from wartime Germany should be branded as the “criminals”, not the Nazis.
Such political censoring of any information that reflects badly on the government and the xenophobic manipulation of language are disturbingly reminiscent of Dr Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda.
Increasingly, journalists attending the Minister for Immigration’s press conferences are met by his stony refusal to elaborate on his media statements. Morrison has become notorious for his ex cathedra approach to questioners.
Assertions, rather than verifiable evidence and reasoned argument, are used to make those weekly announcements. Take it or leave it.
Laurie Oakes has documented instances of his arrogance. Morrison berates journalists for not questioning claims made by their sources, then refuses to provide the information which would allow them to do just that:
“The government is not going to be in the habit of responding to every fanciful notion which is put forward.”
When asked specifically whether he knew what the figures for detainees engaging in self-harm were, he haughtily accused the journalist of jumping to the conclusion that he, as minister, didn’t know the answer:
“Well, you are presuming I don’t. Next.”
Either he was lying or he really did know. But if he did know, he wasn’t telling. He never gave the figures. The following week, self-harming was added to the list of secret “operational matters”.
Shutting Down of ‘Freedom of Information’ Requests
Traditionally, if journalists run into a wall of silence, an effective way around it has been to submit a Freedom of Information request to force the release of the information unless it impinges on highly sensitive material, such as national security details or matters affecting an individual’s privacy.
But not any more.
Attorney general George Brandis has made it more difficult to obtain details of government decisions by tightening up the granting of Freedom of Information requests, making the procedure more convoluted and more expensive.
The Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Attorney-General have failed to follow the example set by the previous governments of 2007 and 2010, when the redacted briefings from their departments were released publicly.
The same Coalition leaders have all refused to grant FOI requests from journalists seeking details of departmental briefings to the in-coming government. Could the reason be that the briefings’ frank assessments of the government’s election policies could prove more than a little embarrassing?
Given the cloud hanging over Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson’s job, little wonder that the Treasury officials were reluctant to release its advice to the Treasurer.