Public information, asylum seekers and the Abbott government

Michelle Grattan has a good piece today on the secrecy of the new federal government, in particular focusing on the Immigration portfolio headed by Scott Morrison.  She references his op-ed from last week, where he puts forward the claim the Abbott government is already stopping the boats. He also says, “The position we have taken on removing operationally sensitive information from public dissemination was flagged before the election and is a function of running a military-led border security operation. It is not business as usual, and that is the point.”

It has come to light that the government will not release figures surrounding the capacity of offshore detention networks, nor statistics on the detention network. We already knew the government would not release information about the specifics of boat arrivals, such as how many people may have been onboard. Incidents that occur in the detention network, including offshore, will also not be discussed.

I want to contrast the above statement and examples of secrecy with one example of how public information on the asylum seeker policies has previously occurred.

In the 2013-14 Budget Estimates hearings, held by the Senate Committee for Legal and Constitutional Affairs this May, a total of 578 questions on notice were put to the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  Of these, 442 were asked by Senator Cash, the current Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. These budget hearings are a bit like question time in parliament, but only if the government of the day was forced by law to provide short, polite, factually correct answers to whoever asked the question. They are a fundamental part of Australian democracy.

Question BE13/0071 reads in part:

Senator CASH: In relation to the statistics that have been uploaded to the department’s website—the immigration detention statistics summary as at 30 April 2013—15 per cent of those in formal and community detention are women and 25 per cent are children. Does that then translate to 40 per cent of IMAs arriving being women and children?

Mr Cahill: My recollection is that we have very few single adult females—in other words, they do not come unaccompanied- they usually come in family groups. I know we are tracking around about 35 per cent of all arrivals being made up of families and unaccompanied minors. But I will confirm that for you later this morning.

The Department also provided further written clarification: “As at close of business on 27 May the financial year-to-date average breakdown of cohort between families, unaccompanied minors and single adult males is as follows: families is 30 per cent of arrivals; single adult males is 63 per cent; and unaccompanied minors is seven per cent.”

These budget hearings are the most fundamental part of government oversight and accountability in the Australian political system. As we have seen, governments can sideline the media and they can sideline the opposition.  Exchanges such as the one above are a stock standard example of how information held by the public service is open to inspection as senior public servants diligently answer questions from Senators about anything at all. It is what separates world-class democratic systems, such as Australia’s, from other systems of government.

The above example demonstrates two important reflections on what Michelle Grattan terms the ‘command-and-control’ of information about asylum seekers under the Abbott Government.

First, it outlines the utter hypocrisy of this secrecy. For the past three years, Scott Morrison and Senator Cash hounded ALP ministers and the Department of Immigration day-in, day-out about the miniature of asylum seekers, from high level policy such as the negotiations of the Malaysia Solution, to the implementation and process of day-to-day operational matters like the movement of people between detention centres. This information was often then used by the media on front pages around the country, informing public debate on an issue which has been at the heart of Australia politics since the second term of the Howard Government. So when Scott Morrison says this type of information ‘incentivises’ more asylum seeking, he is airbrushing away history where he himself was presumably complicit in attracting more asylum seekers.

Of course, this is nonsense. He was completely correct to enquire about the details of government policy. It is what an opposition should do and he was highly successful at it. By now changing the nature of government disclosure of information on asylum seekers, he is simple hiding from a public examination of new government policies and perhaps more importantly, new government operational procedures. We have already seen reports of how this may be occurring in relation to kids being held in isolation in PNG as well as previous events such as a complete staff evacuation of Manus Island sometime in mid-October. We don’t know what occurred, only that it did.

Second, the example above outlines how the provision of public information is essential for the operation of government accountability.  Senator Cash was only able to ask her question because she had a copy of the latest detention statistics. It’s next to impossible to ask questions about new policies and operational procedures in a vacuum of information. As seen by the nature of her question, there is a strong public interest in the composition of people held in detention centres, especially women and children. This is just one example amongst countless others of how public information leads to the accountability of government policies.  There are other examples of these questions about incidents at detention centres (see here) where detailed explanations of what occurred are presented without government bias.  Issues as diverse as contraband within detention centres are often covered. All of this is a good thing. Governments are unable to hide from what occurs in their name and their policies.

The next budget estimates heading occur in less than a fortnight. ALP and Greens Senators will not be able to initially lean on immigration detention statistics as these are now not available. Nor will they be able to trace more detail gained from announcements of incidents at detention centres or the arrival of new boats carrying asylum seekers.

I assume amongst the very first questions from the ALP will concern how many people are being held in detention facilities both onshore and offshore, as well as precise explanations of incidents which have occurred on Manus Island in October.  Either the information will be provided or withheld.  If this information provided, Scott Morrison has no claim to withhold the information in the first place. He is simply wasting time and poorly attempting to shield himself from public accountability.

More worryingly, if this basic information about government policy is withheld – information that has been made public since the beginning of mandatory detention in the early 1990s – the centrepiece of government accountability in Australia will cease to function as an effective process.  I hope this information will be released, however I don’t believe it will be.  This should set the scene for an almighty showdown on the basic tenets of government accountability in Australia. I hope the Opposition are up for it.



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