Blogging Senate Estimates (part 8)

Get your popcorn ready.

Three Star General Angus Campbell, head of Operation Sovereign Borders, made two comments which now define government policy to asylum seekers. These were: “I am not involved in the political process” and “this isn’t the forum where that will be discussed”.

General Campbell says he is not involved in the political process. This is despite finding himself before an overtly political body, established to highlight how public money is spent in Australia. When combined with the policy issue at hand, it doesn’t get much more political. His presence lends the Abbott government policies political legitimacy. His recommendations to the Minister are based in politics, because every single decision made with regard to policy for asylum seekers is political.

His response about the forum was perhaps more disappointing. Under questioning from Senator Carr and Hanson Young, the General repeatedly put forward the rationale that the benefit reaped by people smugglers from information was too great to provide it to the public. Remembering these activities are publicly funded, by tax payer dollars, we are unable to know about government policy operations.

Instead, with Committee Chair McDonald equating the ‘fight’ against asylum seekers with military operations in Afghanistan, we are witnessing the slow deterioration of public accountability about asylum seeker policy. While John Howard simply did as he saw fit and then crowed about it, this government has decided to hide behind a veil of secrecy. You know its a low point when the Howard years are a favourable comparison.

This goes to what the process of parliamentary estimates is for. This is public money being used extensively for a range of policies being implemented at the direction of the government. By incorporating the military, the government is actively seeking to sidestep debate and the provision of information.  This policy is about an equilibrium. Is a once a week press conference, with heavily restricted discussion of individual incidents, equal and worth the trade off to the information provided to people smugglers? Is the trade off to limit information to elected representatives worth it?

I was hopeful these hearings would turn up some useful information. While Senator Hanson Young was able to show that no boats have been purchased in Indonesia because the Indonesian government does not want to participate in that policy, other pickings were slim. The protocols for release of information is made on the recommendation of General Campbell, but ultimately rest with the Minister.

While General Campbell said he did not want to disrespect the Senate, I saw repeated instances of disrespect. We don’t get demographic information about asylum seekers as this encourages chain migration. We don’t get specific incident detail as this helps people smugglers. Sarah Hanson Young said press conferences were being given precedence over senate hearings and it is hard to disagree with her. 

This is an issue which now moves beyond asylum seeker policy. Operation Sovereign Borders has successfully hidden key government policy. As I saw on twitter, we’re not at war with people smugglers. They are not the Taliban. They are not Saddam circa 1990. The ‘very necessary’ protocols about information provision are removing the public right to know about how public money is spent on government policy. A sad turn indeed.

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