News National If there’s one thing this PM does well, it’s blindfold the public’s right to know

If there’s one thing this PM does well, it’s blindfold the public’s right to know

Prime Minister Scott Morrison seems to believe an uninformed public is a happy public. Photo: AAP
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Scott Morrison did a remarkable thing six years ago when he issued a suppression order to stop Australians being told when the Navy intercepts asylum seekers.

This was an act of censorship largely unknown outside of war.

The media, with notable exceptions, meekly accepted his edict.

“We’ll be doing things differently as a new government. This is a border security operation,” Mr Morrison announced.

“It will be a tougher approach. Our resolve to implement what we have promised the Australian people, to stop the boats, is absolute.”

The strategy to bring in the nation’s military to stop then boats worked.

No doubt the Prime Minister would argue that the secrecy was part of the operation’s success.

The worst years were 2012 and 2013, when 578 boats with over 37,000 asylum seekers arrived on Julia Gillard’s watch.

Christmas Island Refugees
Rescued asylum seekers arrive on Christmas Island in 2012. Photo: AAP

Incidentally, that was around the time the Tamil couple the Morrison government is trying to deport arrived.

Those numbers started to drop slightly after Kevin Rudd established offshore processing but slowed to trickle under Scott Morrison.

By 2014, just one boat arrived. After that, no boats for the next few years – a remarkable achievement.

Six years on, does the Morrison Government need to maintain such secrecy about boat turnbacks and arrivals?

There’s no sunset clause on Mr Morrison’s suppression order, so how would we know?

Having stripped Australians of their right to know, the Prime Minister has no plans to reinstate it.

This week, there was a reminder of one reason his government likes to keep the secrecy order in place: political propaganda.

It allows the Morrison Government to release information when it sees fit for political reasons.

The Prime Minister admitted as much when he explained why the government had chosen to leak information to The Australian  about Sri Lankan boat arrivals as it faced a national campaign over the deportation of the Tamil family now awaiting the fate on Christmas Island.

“We followed a practice that we have in the past and I think that keeps the issue of the ever-present threat of illegal arrivals to Australia foremost in the public’s mind,” he said.

Asked if the government would now regularly release information about people smugglers, Mr Morrison added: “The government releases information as it believes it’s important to do so.”

Journalist Annika Smethurst received an unexpected visit from police – a raid the Prime Minister initially defended. Photo: AAP

That’s a long-standing character trait – the Prime Minister likes to play games in press conferences, being tricky with his answers. Earlier this year, when police raided Canberra press gallery journalist Annika Smethurst’s home over a story she published, the Prime Minister’s first reaction was positive.

“It never troubles me that our laws are being upheld,” he said.

A public backlash followed and a savaging by media outlets, including Fairfax and News Corp, prompted Mr Morrison to adjust his language but not his attitude.

This week, when the police raided the home of a former Liberal ministerial adviser and intelligence officer in Canberra, there was speculation the operation could be linked to the investigation into the leak of top-secret information to the journalist.

‘The law will apply’

The Prime Minister was quite right to note we should be careful about assuming that, because the police have said no such thing.

But he went on to point out, again, that he had no problem with police raids on journalists’ homes if a law had been broken.

“There’s no one who is above the law in this country. And the law will apply,” he said.

Finally, he claimed his government has never had a plan to expand the role of the Australian Signals Directorate domestically, as was claimed in the original newspaper reports that sparked the raids.

“Well, the Government doesn’t have that plan,” he said.

A journalist asked him a second time if the public had a right to know if it did.

“But the Government doesn’t have that plan. So, I mean, I don’t really know how to respond to the question. The Government has no such plans. It never did. And so it’s a hypothetical.”

That’s not true, of course, and we know that because the proposal is outlined in black and white in the correspondence that sparked that police raid on a journalists’ house.

As The Saturday Paper recently reported, the Department of Home Affairs is still pursuing plans to expand the powers of the Australian Signals Directorate, “to potentially embed ASD within the corporate computer systems that run the nation’s banks, telecommunications and other critical infrastructure.”

When Peter Dutton was asked this week “if the government has plans to extend the remit of spy agencies inside of Australia, doesn’t the public have a right to know?,” he tried to humiliate the journalist.

“What are you referring to? What does your text from Canberra say?” he said.

Sarcasm as a shield

This was a reference to the practice of Canberra journalists texting their interstate colleagues on federal questions – and his response allowed Mr Dutton to intimidate the journalists into not asking any more questions, despite the fact he is well aware of the proposal.

As Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes noted when the now-Prime Minister announced his suppression order on boat turnbacks, Mr Morrison was “not slow to reprimand journalists for publishing or broadcasting inaccurate information.”

Oakes predicted that this arrogance and disregard for truth would ultimately backfire.

“You can’t thumb your nose at the voters’ right to know and you can’t arrogantly say ‘we’ll let the voters be misinformed and we won’t help journalists get it right’. That’s just a disgusting attitude,” Oakes said.

But of course, history tells us that you can. Mr Morrison is now the Prime Minister, and his instinct for the suppression of information continues.