Last week was one of contrasts in the politics of information around asylum seekers. It began when Immigration Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that he would cease his weekly media briefings about ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ and would instead hold press conferences ‘as the need arose’. Morrison’s policy of silence however was quickly undone as he left no time to deny claims the Navy directed warning shots to an asylum seeker boatnear Christmas Island. Clearly this issue was not one of ‘operational matters’.
The week highlights the depths of the quandary Morrison has gotten himself into. In cutting off all information sources Morrison has left a massive vacuum – a vacuum that the media is destined to fill.
Yet, whilst the critique of Morrison’s information blackout continues, one question remains to be asked. When it comes to asylum seekers, or any other policy matter, what information does the Government actually owe us?
For most the answer to that question is quite simple. Governments should be ‘open and accountable’. They should provide as much information as possible to allow for as much scrutiny as possible.
But of course, it’s more complex than that. How open and accountable for example? What are the limits? And how, when and why should Governments be releasing this sort of information? The asylum case provides a perfect example of what this complexity looks like.
Much of the current controversy arose after the Coalition decided to stop sending media releases every time a boat arrived. It was the first sign of an increasing level of secrecy – and a hypocritical one at that! And whilst yes it was hypocritical that doesn’t mean it was bad policy. The regular media releases provided little to no benefit to the Australian community. In fact, they harmed the debate by making it a major story every time a boat arrived – stirring furore every time. Cutting this furore off at its source therefore had the potential to calm down the debate, with real positives to come with that. It was a case where open and accountable – at least not in a proactive manner – wasn’t necessarily best.
But here is where it becomes more complex again. Because after the initial media release announcement the Government has gone much further. Using that well quoted phrase ‘operational matters’, restrictions on information have become more ridiculous every day. The Government is now not only refusing to push information out proactively, but are also failing a basic duty to respond to questions when asked. It may seem like a fine line, but it is an important one.
Part of the reason this is problematic comes down to trust. The Governments’ hiding of the facts, even when questioned directly, has clearly, and rightfully, created suspicion. Whilst this doesn’t mean the Government is hiding anything damaging, it opens the doors for those questions to be asked. But more than that this is an issue of transparency – a failure in being open and accountable at even a basic level. Whilst the Government does not necessarily need to be pushing out this information, it certainly shouldn’t be holding it back in the way it has done.
The last few days have shown what a quandary Scott Morrison has got himself into. But in dealing with it we shouldn’t just assume that he owes us everything, all the time. His basic denial of any form of information is a shocking treatment of our democratic system, but we also need to be a bit more nuanced in the way we engage with the Government about the information they provide. Open and accountable, whilst a great ideal, is a complex one too.