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In the teeth of the pandemic, government spokespeople are no longer just obfuscating – they are hiding from the public the truth about what is really happening. By Mike Seccombe.

What happens when a government chooses to lie?

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.
Credit: AAP Image / James Ross

You may have thought, after the recent public health disaster in Victoria, the media advisers of the Andrews government would have realised you cannot spin away the realities of a pandemic. But apparently not.

Back in June, when evidence began to emerge linking the second wave of coronavirus cases in Melbourne to poor infection control among private security guards employed in hotel quarantine, the government’s immediate response was of denial, as Chloe Booker of The Age newspaper recounted in a piece last weekend.

On June 11, two days prior to the publication of the paper’s first story on the failings of the state’s hotel quarantine arrangements, the “top spinner” in the state’s Department of Health and Human Services “rang to say we were off track and that publishing would be a mistake”. The security company did the same.

Booker went on to detail a continuing pattern of untruths, misdirection and attempts to plant false narratives, which persisted even as the infection spread through the community. “Should taxpayers fund media advisors to obstruct truth?” she asked. “Why was time and effort dedicated to this instead of fixing the problem before the … outbreak?”

Almost four months later – after more than 18,000 infections and about 800 deaths, a stringent lockdown and an independent inquiry that clearly established poor infection control among hotel quarantine workers as the cause of the catastrophe – history repeated.

Osman Faruqi had a disturbingly similar experience as he was researching a story that ran in The Saturday Paper last weekend, relating to Covid-19 infections among people employed at two quarantine hotels in Melbourne.

Alfred Health, the operator of The Alfred hospital, was contracted to run these “hot” hotels. It in turn subcontracted much of the work to the cleaning and security provider Spotless. Oversight for the program was with the Department of Health and Human Services, and then the Department of Justice and Community Safety (DJCS).

Says Faruqi: “I had a very, very solid source, saying that there had been a number of infections among Spotless staff, and maybe among other staff, too, so I put inquiries to all three of the parties involved.”

For several days, each of the parties involved bounced Faruqi’s inquiries between one another. Eventually, the DJCS said their staff had not been infected. Spotless ignored the questions but said it had complied with government requirements. The media adviser at The Alfred said the story was totally incorrect. But the story was correct.

“So,” says Faruqi, “after Andrews was questioned about this for three days … they put out a statement saying the report was right, there were nine staff infected, including from The Alfred hospital and from Spotless.”

That was on Tuesday. Late on Wednesday night, it was revealed that the government had hurriedly stood down private security at one “hot” hotel and sent in police to replace them.

The problem was the same one as four months ago – poor infection control. And the reflexive response of the spinners was also the same: deny, obfuscate and – let’s be blunt – lie.

But why do it? Faruqi poses the question not only as an ethical one, but also as a practical concern, particularly in this second instance. There is an official inquiry under way – which now has undertaken to investigate this latest incident. The truth will come out.

If there is an ongoing problem with the system, he asks, “Why not just admit that? Who benefits from keeping these things secret?”

Not the community, whose lives are potentially put at risk. And not the authorities either, who inevitably look deceitful as well as incompetent.

In the case of the Victorian government – which is constantly and often unfairly assailed by some sections of the media and was before the Covid-19 crisis – there has developed what Faruqi calls a “bunker mentality”.

But there is another issue here, which is highlighted by the Victorian example but goes far broader. It stems from efforts of governments everywhere to limit the flow of information.

Chris Barrie sees it. From July 1998 to July 2002, Admiral Barrie was chief of the Australian Defence Force. His tenure coincided with one of the great scandals of the Howard government, which came to be known as the “children overboard” affair.

During the 2001 “Tampa election”, the government claimed asylum seekers attempting to come to Australia by boat had thrown children into the sea.

The claims were untrue, but despite efforts by the military to correct the narrative, Howard government ministers, most prominently his Defence minister, Peter Reith, persisted with them. Worse, they moved to gag the defence force, insisting all media statements on the issue go through Reith’s media secretary.

Even so, Barrie says, “There is less openness generally in government than there used to be.”

These days Barrie’s academic work for the Australian National University ranges from defence to the environment. He sees this increasing deceitful media management as part of a larger shift in the role of the public sector. “I know that in 2014, when Abbott was prime minister, people in departments were not allowed to write the words climate change,” he says.

“And the Morrison government has made it clear that public servants are there to do what they’re told, not to give frank and fearless advice.

“I think that’s a very serious problem.”

He is not alone in that view. In a strong opinion piece in The Australian this week, Gary Banks, the former dean of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government and inaugural chairman of the Productivity Commission, lamented the increasing politicisation of the bureaucracy.

The leaders of the public service, Banks wrote, “today are essentially there at the pleasure of the minister (and ultimately the prime minister or first minister). And many can really only keep their jobs as long as the minister keeps his or hers, and the government remains in power.”

And this dependency, he wrote, brings “heightened risks of senior officers being too aligned to provide balanced or objective advice; or subordinating policy to politics when the going gets tough; or seeking to protect a minister or government politically, even when that requires acting in a way that may be unethical or contrary to the public interest; or suspending procedures for the scrutiny of ill-conceived regulatory initiatives.”

In the case of the Victorian quarantine imbroglio, Banks suggested, the appearance was that bureaucrats had made the calls on contentious issues. In reality, however, “health and other officials have been acting as human shields, providing cover or deniability for decisions made behind the scenes”.

A similar lack of accountability was exposed in the New South Wales inquiry into the Ruby Princess cruise ship, Banks wrote.

“In short, what is being revealed throughout this health crisis is a crisis in bureaucracy itself.”

Banks did not specifically mention in his analysis the proliferation of ministerial advisers and media spinners. But others with a deep knowledge of the evolution of the relationship between government and public service see this as critical to the decline in accountability and the public’s right to information.

“These advisers are not subject to any independent supervision or to any processes that really hold them to account,” says one. “They have come to believe they can direct public servants. They should be subject to the same kind of examination as the public service, before parliamentary committees for example, but they are not.”

And they are tremendously influential. Peta Credlin, the chief of staff to Tony Abbott when he was prime minister, is probably the best-known example. Stories are legion about Credlin’s exercise of power, bawling out senior bureaucrats and even ministers, calling to berate journalists over stories, intervening in ministerial staff selections, sitting in on cabinet meetings. The list goes on.

These advisers are not sources of independent advice – they are partisans – and their influence increasingly percolates down through the whole machinery of government. It helps explain the disinformation that increasingly passes from the bureaucracy into the public domain.

Sandi Logan can attest to that. These days Logan describes himself as a strategic communications coach. He was formerly a long-time spinner for government. Those in the media who dealt with him knew him to be, if not always forthcoming, at least accessible and straight talking.

He says that “good practice in media liaison and in public affairs generally” is to share what information you can.

Of course, he says, there are times when you might know the answer to a question “but you can’t give that answer, either because it might be in conflict with what’s already on the record, or it’s classified, or you don’t yet know whether, in fact, what’s being put to you is true or not”.

But there is a key rule, or at least there was when he worked in government: “Never lie. It’s a given that you never lie,” he says.

If you don’t know, Logan says, find out. “During 20 years in Foreign Affairs and 10 years in Immigration and AFP,” he says, “there were many times when things that were put to me were news to me, things that journalists discovered.

“If you’re actually good at your job, when you’re challenged like that, the best thing to do is collect as much intelligence as you can, because that then arms you with a better ability to go to the line area specialists … and find out what they know.”

In his time running communications for the Department of Immigration, Logan insists, staff responded to all queries within 60 minutes, no matter the time of day.

He says there have been significant changes since he left the public service. “Bureaucrats today are often more aligned now to the interests of the government of the day,” he says. “We’ve seen ministerial offices – especially the Commonwealth level, but I suspect at the state level as well – playing more and more of a role of policy direction and policy formulation.

“And sadly, as I’ve experienced, more often than not, there are elements of ministerial staff interference in the way you will respond, in the manner and the speed with which you can respond. The degree to which ministers’ offices now impose themselves on departmental comms [communications] teams is quite frightening.”

The reality is that the flow of information has narrowed, even as the number of people employed in government “communications” has expanded. As the bureaucracy has become more “responsive” to government, it has become less responsive to the public’s right to know.

On Monday this week, The Saturday Paper rang the media section of one of the less-forthcoming federal departments, the Department of Home Affairs, with a simple question: how many media officers are employed there?

The public servant on the other end of the line asked that the question be put in writing in an email. A few hours later came a reply, pointing to an “answer on notice” given to a senate estimates committee in March. Question 180, to be precise.

The answer was in the form of a table, which identified 108 public relations, communications and media staff in Home Affairs. However, according to an auditor-general’s report from January this year, there were 214 people employed in “communications and marketing” in the department as at December 2018.

Presumably the discrepancy related to some kind of classification difference, and no doubt many did things other than answer media questions, working in other areas of internal and external communications. But the precise number is not terribly important; the relevant fact is that there are lots of such people, all working to control the flow of information. “Shitloads,” as Logan puts it.

As there are in other departments. The auditor’s report identified 493 spinners in the tax office, 286 in Human Services, 168 in Defence, and hundreds more scattered across a variety of other departments.

And then there are the external consultants, hired at taxpayers’ expense to spin on behalf of government.

The reality is that a huge and ever-growing number of people stand between the public and information about the people who govern them – and increasingly these media consultants and public relations officials are involved in concealing what is happening or explicitly misleading journalists about it.

After Faruqi’s story was published in The Saturday Paper, Premier Daniel Andrews was asked by several journalists at his daily press conference about staff infections in the “hot” hotels. He said he didn’t know about the cases and would have to speak to the Department of Justice and Community Safety.

Other journalists followed up, asking the department to clarify how many staff working in these hotels had become infected and how this could have happened. They were told that the cases were due to community transmission, not a breakdown in infection controls.

It was only after the third day of questioning that the department finally emailed journalists confirming there had, in fact, been nine staff infections in “hot” hotels and offered a breakdown of who employed these workers. Still, they were adamant the cases were acquired in the community, not at the hotels.

On Wednesday, Liberal MP Edward O’Donohue, Victoria’s shadow attorney-general, wrote to the state’s hotel quarantine inquiry asking for the “hot” hotel infections to be examined as part of its upcoming report. The inquiry’s chief executive, Jo Rainford, confirmed that it would.

“We confirm that, in the course of preparing its report, the Board will be making further enquiries regarding the operation of the Brady and Grand Chancellor Hotels,” she wrote.

On Thursday, the Andrews government stepped back from its assertion none of the cases were acquired in the “hot” hotels. An investigation, it was revealed, is still ongoing.

The deputy chief health officer, Allen Cheng, said genomic data is still being analysed. “We know that it’s not part of one big outbreak because they’re in different times and different places, but I understand that the investigation is ongoing,” he said.

It had been 10 days since Faruqi first put questions to the DJCS about the infections.

“It took that long and it took every major media organisation – from The Australian to The Age, news.com.au, The Guardian, commercial radio – all piling questions on the premier to get any real answers about what happened in these hotels and whether there was a breakdown in infection controls.”

The first assertion – that the story was entirely wrong – has finally disappeared.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "What happens when a government chooses to lie?".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.