Abbott’s Secret State

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Australia’s most respected political commentators have criticised the Coalition Government’s excessive secrecy. Clint Howitt says this bodes badly for our 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 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is jarring to see how quickly the public's reasonable expectation of probity in its political representatives has been superseded by the reflex to secrecy and self-protection in the new political class.’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 …’

A recent editorial in Crikey deplored the

‘… worrying signs of a secretive government.’

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 Labor 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.

Burke observed:

“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.

Growing Authoritarianism

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.

Limiting Interviews and Opportunities for Questions

Even before the election, Coalition spokespersons were on a tight rein. Labor ministers and even the Prime Minister regularly subjected themselves to long and gruelling questioning.

Meanwhile, the Coalition in opposition diverted attention away from itself by its constant and disproportionate attacks on the government.

When it came to scrutiny of Coalition policies, Abbott and others used a standard procedure: dress up in a high-viz vest and helmet, make a statement, answer one or two questions, then walk away. The details were deliberately avoided.

Post election, even that procedure has been whittled away. Ministers regularly turn down interviews, rarely make statements and usually cut short questions afterwards.

As Opposition Leader, Abbott was continually staging stunts and haranguing the government. As PM he has almost vanished from our TV screens. It prompted Jonathan Green to label his very low public profile as

‘Tony Abbott's Incredible Disappearing Act’.

Given the number of gaffes he has made when facing searching interviews, it’s not surprising that he is dodging embarrassing himself yet again. But it is a denial of his chief responsibility — to be answerable to the Australian public for the conduct of his government.

Secret Agendas

We know the Coalition has form on concealing its true intentions from voters before an election. Work Choices was a classic example of a party legislating to benefit the sectional interests of its supporter base without allowing sufficient prior scrutiny of a punitive policy.

Inaction on climate change

An early concealed objective to emerge under Abbott is his intention to avoid taking effective action on climate change.

His “climate change is crap” assertion is well known, as is the contempt for the scientific evidence exhibited by many Coalition backers, such as the IPA and the mining giants. The first item on the IPA’s agenda is to dismantle all measures designed to deal with Climate Change.

Abbott is street smart enough to know that he has to go through the motions of endorsing the findings of the scientific community. The trick is to avoid actually doing anything meaningful about it.

His strategy has been to downplay the enormity and urgency of the problem. Without directly attacking the overwhelming scientific consensus on the need for urgent action, Abbott has continually cast doubt on the enormity of the problem and on the credibility of the science and the scientists.

He happily appears on programs hosted by notorious climate change deniers like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt in an atmosphere of jolly cameraderie. Nudge, nudge; wink, wink.

As recently as last month, at the height of the NSW bushfires, he misrepresented and then ridiculed the statement from the UN Chief Negotiator on Climate Change.

To purloin one of Abbott’s pet phrases, Christiana Figueres made it “crystal clear” that she was not making a direct link between global warming and the NSW fires. What she did say was that climate change is creating the preconditions for extreme bush fires, making them more likely and therefore more frequent.

Abbott’s response that she was “talking through her hat” was debunked as ‘false’ by fact checking website Politifact.

Calls on the Coalition to “respect the science” have been answered by scrapping the stand- alone Science Ministry, while retaining a Ministry dedicated solely to Sport. That speaks volumes about this government’s priorities.

All of the independent government bodies associated with climate change established by Labor will go. The Climate Commission has gone already. Soon to follow will be the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Downgrading Environmental Impact Studies

 His determination to “cut green tape” and to revoke marine national parks clearly points to shutting down the environmental lobby’s influence. Conservationists’ concerns will take a back seat to “development” and “business” in driving the Coalition’s agenda.

Even with the previous environmental regulations, the alarming impact of Queensland’s coal port developments on the Great Barrier Reef are so serious that more, not less, oversight is warranted.

Raising Government Debt

Pre-election, Treasurer Hockey was constantly warning that Australia’s debt was out of control. Five weeks after the election, he has doubled Australia’s debt to half a trillion dollars. An increase of that magnitude was off-the-radar before the election.

If Labor had done it, there would have been howls of derision and the Murdoch press would have gone ballistic.

But we’ve not been given one word of explanation from hockey on how doubling our “catastrophic” debt would impact on our apparently crippled economy. Maybe someone showed him the figures on how low our national debt actually is.

RBA’s Capital Reserves

We were told that it was a matter of urgency to inject $8.8 billion into the Reserve Bank’s coffers to ensure its financial viability. But we were not told that the RBA did not ask for the extra funds nor think they were necessary.

Reserve Bank governor Glen Stevens and the deputy governor made it quite clear that they were happy to build up the bank’s capital reserves gradually without extra borrowing.

This cynical exercise in budget politics will cost taxpayers about $300 million over the next 12 months and another couple of hundred million the next year.

Sydney Morning Herald editorial cartoonist Alan Moir's take on the era of Abbott "Open Government". (Image via smh.com.au)

Silence on MP’s Travel Rorts 

The public outrage over the misuse of parliamentary travel allowances was loud and prolonged.

The government’s initial reaction was righteous indignation that anyone dare question its members’ integrity. That made the public even angrier. Then much of it was quietly but grudgingly paid back.

Suddenly all the Coalition’s cries of ending “government waste” went silent. Nor was there any detailed explanation or justification about the claims.

The government has now gone to ground completely on this one. It’s as if they think the best strategy is to ignore the problem and it will go away. Silence seems to be the preferred option, not an overhaul of the regulations to make MP’s fully accountable for their claims.

Mark Kenny summed it up:

‘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.’

Narrowing Community Engagement

Instead of widening his engagement with all sections of the community, Abbott has shown an increasing reluctance to expose himself to any who may hold differing views. This is at odds with his promise to “serve all Australians”.

Before the election, he was one of three high profile speakers at the conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. The other two were Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch, whose allegiances to Abbott are common knowledge.

When entertaining members of the media at Kirribilli House, the guest list was a Who’s Who of hardwired Coalition supporters — among them, Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Alan Jones, Janet Albrechtsen, Miranda Devine, Chris Kenny, Daily Telegraph editor Paul Whittaker, News Corp editor Col Allan, Paul Sheehan and Gerard Henderson.

Not unexpectedly, secrecy ruled the event. Guests were asked to keep the evening strictly confidential. Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman dutifully complied. “I don't talk about my relations with other people,” said Akerman.

The spokeswoman for the function refused to say whether taxpayers’ money would pay for the evening.

Then there was a similarly politically inbred guest list, headed by Abbott and Howard, for the dinner to celebrate Quadrant magazine’s 500th edition. In a lickspittle account of the evening, arch-conservative Keith Windshuttle made it quite clear that the 180 guests were restricted to the right sort.

They chose to lock themselves away inside the citadel of Fort Denison, while the hoi poloi were kept at a safe distance outside.

Of course, Abbott did not arrange this function, nor did he control the guest list. And he is quite entitled to choose which functions he attends. But such closed and secretive affairs don’t augur well for open government.

How Secrecy Undermines Democracy

Representative democracy is founded on the principle that governments derive their powerfrom the consent of the governed”.

By having the right to vote, the public’s power in a democracy lies in its ability to remove a government if voters think it is unfit to hold office.

Without a full knowledge of a party’s motives and actions, that power is compromised. By its very nature, secrecy corrodes the democratic system to its core.

It is hard to think of a single instance throughout history where government corruption, incompetence, mismanagement, political chicanery, criminal culpability or breaches of constitutional powers have not been cloaked in secrecy.

Australians must insist on their right to know. We must demand open government.

It is our obligation to hold our governments to account and give due regard to Jefferson’s observation:

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”


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