If a refugee drowns in the ocean trying to reach Australia and the Government decides not to tell us, will their soul still haunt a Senator’s dreams?
On Monday, Scott Morrison, the new Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, held the first weekly update of the Coalition Government’s laughably named ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’.
The press conference, for that’s was it was, was fronted by Morrison and his newly minted ‘three star’ Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, a man whose job I do not envy for a second.
Fronting the cameras, Morrison was keen to continue the Coalition’s pre-election lines. The issue was one of border ‘security’ and ‘protection’. People arriving by boat remained ‘illegal’ and the Government’s resolve to stop the boats was “genuine” and “absolute”.
More important, however, was Morrison’s focus on ‘operational matters’. Not only did he confirm the Government’s decision to provide a single weekly update confirming the number of irregular maritime arrivals, he also made the extraordinary admission the Government was unlikely to announce if any boats had ever been turned around.
Let’s look at these revelations one by one.
Morrison claims the Government’s decision to reduce the amount and cadence of information provided about asylum seeker arrivals were made for ‘operational’ and ‘tactical’ reasons. They are, he suggested, consistent with military led operations of this nature.
Further, Morrison implied that had profited from previous policy of announcing asylum boats as and when they arrived. We are not, he claimed, in the business of “providing shipping news to people smugglers”.
Let’s be clear about why the Minister has made these decisions. It has little to do with stopping the flow of boats, and nothing at all to do with saving the lives of those still likely die at sea. What it does have everything to do with, is politics.
Morrison is not withholding information on asylum boat arrivals to disrupt the business model people smugglers. Nor is he doing so because too much information is likely, as he claims, to disrupt important tactical operations.
He is doing so to disrupt the flow of information to you, the public. He is doing so because it disrupts the functioning of our democracy. And he is doing so because is in his own, and his party’s, naked self interest.
It is, as Katharine Murphy has written, a government treating its constituents with contempt. It is also a government secure in the knowledge that a fair section of the media will happily go along with its plan.
The rationale behind the non-announcement of turn backs is similar, and the implications just as profound.
In Opposition turning back boats was a key element of the Coalition’s attack on the Government and a central plank of their election campaign. Now in government, Morrison has confirmed that the Australian public may never know how effective this policy has been in achieving its stated objective; or even if it has been implemented at all. Instead, Morrison has asked Australians to take the Government upon their word.
‘Trust us, we’ll tell you all you need to know about this politically contentious and hard to investigate issue’
For a party that made so much of the previous Government’s failure to abate the rate of asylum boat arrivals, this is an extraordinary request. Not only does it require a “spectacular degree of trust” that this government certainly has yet to earn, it is also a level of trust that no democratic citizenry should ever place in its government
Suppose, for example, a boatload of asylum seekers was to sink soon after being turned around. Would we, the citizens of the country whose borders the government acting to ‘protect’, be told? Would we hear about the deaths? Would representatives and our Parliament debate the issue, shed tears and score cheap political points in the way that they did in June of 2012 when dozens perished at sea?
How would we as a citizenry be able to judge the actions our government if we are routinely kept in the dark for reasons such as ‘tactics’, ‘operations’ and ‘security’?
Please, do not get me wrong. I do not begrudge a government (or an Opposition for that matter) for using clever messaging and politics to swing a contentious issue their way—and this is indeed clever politics of the type the modern Labor Party is completely unable to master. I also do not begrudge an incoming government its prerogative to do things differently from its predecessor.
What I do resent is being asked to judge a government on its record, and then being denied the very information I need to make that judgement myself.