Comment

Public deserves to know asylum-seeker facts

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ONE of the best tricks used by the public relations industry to shut down a story is to starve it of oxygen. If reporters have no new information or details, eventually they will run out of new things to write.

So the theory goes.

It is precisely this principle that newly appointed Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison seems to have deployed in relation to asylum seekers coming by boat to Australia.

Fairfax Media reported last week that Mr Morrison's office has clamped down on information issued by his department or other border protection agencies. Previously, basic details about when, where and how many asylum seekers had arrived was released regularly by the department and reported, including by this newspaper.

Having first ratcheted-up the rhetoric around asylum seekers while in opposition, and then made it a key plank of its election pitch, the Coalition's move is deeply concerning. Figures are hazy and hard to confirm, but the Monash Australian Border Deaths Database - regarded by some as the most reliable record of its kind - says 877 asylum seekers died between 2008 and 2013. Most died, or disappeared presumed dead, at sea.

What is to happen to those who follow them in the future? Will Australia now pretend not to notice the hundreds of desperate refugees dying on its doorstep in their attempts to flee war or political persecution? How is the broader Australian community to have a reasonable, informed debate about this highly contentious area of policy if it is going to be denied access to the basic facts?

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Perhaps the government hopes that without access to the figures, the public and the media will lose interest in the issue. Having staked so much of its election success on their insistence that it would stop the boats, failing to do so would be deeply embarrassing for the Abbott government.

It has taken its policies to the electorate and earned a mandate to implement them. But that mandate should not include choking off the flow of information purely because it might be embarrassing.

Open, accountable governments are the ones that make public information just that, public. Doing so earns the public's trust, while refusing to release data collected by public servants leads to questions of whether there is something to hide.

Public information is not the private property of departments or their political masters to use as they see fit. It belongs to all Australians, who have a right to know what is being done in their name and on their behalf by those they elect.