Clique of secrecy

This government does not have the healthiest relationship with truth. We knew this from the first election Tony Abbott contested as opposition leader.

In that campaign, he had the following to say on the subject, during an interview with Kerry O’Brien: “I know politicians are going to be judged on everything they say. But sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark. Which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth are those carefully prepared scripted remarks.”

Since then, his government has been shown to have lied in its successful tilt at office, on funding cuts to the public broadcasters, changes to health and education, changes to the pension and changes to tax, among other things. It has continued to lie in government.

The Abbott government’s frequent misrepresentation of the truth is worrying in itself. But it is made worse by its vicious campaign to prevent the access of contrary information.

The government’s counterterrorism laws neatly control the reporting of activities by Australia’s security agencies, introducing the threat of a decade in prison to journalists covering operations. Its legislation on data retention would make easier the prosecution of journalists’ sources.

Immigration has been an area of particular secrecy for the government. One of the reasons asylum seekers are processed on remote islands, at great expense, is to control information about their cases and conditions.

While Scott Morrison was immigration minister, stonewalling was a hallmark of his office. Peter Dutton’s first impulse in the portfolio has been to deny reports he is forced later to confirm.

This week, Guardian Australia revealed a concerted effort to stop reporting of offshore detention centres and boat arrivals – Morrison’s famous “on-water matters”.

The report showed at least eight news stories about immigration from various outlets had been referred to the Australian Federal Police in the past year, in an attempt to uncover sources.

In one referral, the head of Customs and Border Protection Service, Michael Pezzullo, wrote: “On review of the article, it appears that several of the claims may have drawn upon classified information. This suspected disclosure of this classified information relates specifically to operational and assessment activity that is not available through open sources or authorised media releases. I would be grateful if your agency would accept the responsibility for investigating this matter with a view to identification and, if appropriate, prosecution of the persons responsible.”

The words would be laughable to anyone who has sat through the obfuscation and obstructions of an Operation Sovereign Borders briefing, or read an “authorised media release”.

If these were the only source of information about the appalling treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention, Australians would know almost nothing of what is happening on Manus Island or Nauru.

Of course, this is what the government would prefer: falsehoods in the “heat of discussion” and the odd drip of “absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remarks”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 24, 2015 as "Clique of secrecy". Subscribe here.