Political interference runs deep

IT WAS Defence pressure on senior politicians, not, as pretended, Scott Morrison's tender solicitude for perceptions that the ADF was being politicised, that led to the separation of the minimalist briefings about government actions against boat people.

But the Minister for Immigration, and the government, are still verballing the ADF about advice that the handout of information should be minimal so as to ''avoid telegraphing'' the ''shipping news'' to people smugglers.

Defence has always had some reservations about the broadcasting of some sensitive material about sea-going operations to intercept or rescue boat people. These relate particularly to communications. Relatively ''open'' material, from sources such as Immigration, Customs or Border Command might get mixed up with embarrassingly informative secret material gathered by Australian spies and their agents operating in Indonesia, ''disruption'' programs (some involving bribery) run by the AFP, and satellite and radio communications intelligence gathered by the Defence Signals Division.

But neither the ADF nor the Defence Department have any problem about routine details of operations being available, in the way that they once were. There may be a difference in the political intent behind interception, and the impression this creates, but operations have not much changed. It is a political, not a military decision to withhold information, and it is based on a political, not a military or intelligence judgment or guess about its effect on people smugglers or potential boat people. Service people are being verballed into agreeing that censorship is occurring for tactical or operational purposes, asked for by professional military judgment.

Lieutenant General Angus Campbell loyally insisted at Friday's briefing that it was the minister who had taken the initiative about some separation of the briefings so as to avoid the possibility of the ADF being seen to be politicised. He knew nothing, he claimed, about any murmurs from the direction of his day job. If he thinks that, he must be well outside the loop, because the concern among his colleagues, inside defence circles, and in other areas of government, has been widespread, and had reached formal channels. Had Morrison not taken some initiative, it is likely the services would have taken some steps to make it clear they were following orders, not writing the orders or the rules.

Indeed, the whole question of political command of the ADF is a very tender wound, not only for the ADF but also for the department and the wider bureaucracy. All the more when Morrison, Tony Abbott and other Coalition spruikers are making no bones about a search for political advantage from the implementation of its orders,


The ADF and the Australian Public Service were seriously hurt by the criticism they incurred during the ''children overboard'' affair in 2001. In the middle of an election campaign, voters were given wrong information by the military and public servants about the interception of a boat, and the supposed throwing of children into the water in order to force a navy rescue. John Howard and Philip Ruddock made political points based on the false claims. At the time, the Howard government was insisting, as Morrison is now, that only ministers' offices could issue information. When military and bureaucratic officials learnt that false information had been given out, their efforts to correct the record were ineffectual, in part because of some singularly Nelsonian gestures and poor judgments by officers. In the aftermath, politicians largely escaped free, protected by the veil cast by the ministerial office over what the boss has actually been told.

But this incident was only one that has many wary about slavish obedience to politicians, or covering up for their mistakes.

A culture of hostility to asylum seekers, refugees and irregular arrivals has long existed in Immigration, which has hardly needed, most of the time, various ministers to tell them not to ''humanise'' boat people, to call them false names such as ''illegals'', to allow easy media or legal access to them, or to seek to heavily restrict any legal rights or review of decisions affecting them. Despite very heavy criticism of this culture by the Palmer and Comrie reports, accepted by the Howard government of the time, there have been only cosmetic changes to the style of management, the pretence that Australia is besieged by claimants, many bogus, and to a pattern of besieged and hostile responses to questions by outsiders.

Yet the scandals occurred because bureaucrats and officials believed themselves to be applying, in both letter and spirit, the political policy of ministers of the day. The Cornelia Rau case - in which an Australian was treated badly because she had been confused for an overstayer - or Vivienne Solon - a naturalised Australian treated with great cruelty and then deported to and abandoned in the Philippines - caused an outcry. Public servants, like naval officers before them, learnt that with politicians, loyalty is a one-way street, and that they could be, and would be, hung out to dry if anything went wrong.

One can predict that it will be the department, not the minister, that will end up with the blame for appalling, cruel and inept treatment of the mother of the baby born in Brisbane this week, after being removed from Nauru for a caesarean section. The studied heartlessness is perhaps a perfect example of an department unable - perhaps unwilling - to learn from its many past mistakes.

The realisation that politicians will not hesitate to blame everyone else has finally made at least some public servants and officers be a little more robust in offering advice to ministers. When ministers want scapegoats, those who have no kept records, who have been too ''responsive'' and eagre to please, and who have not been frank and fearless, have little protection. The sacking of a number of secretaries on the advent of the Abbott government showed that governments will sometimes punish public servants simply for being associated with unpopular policies in other administrations.

Morrison's policies are risky. It is almost inevitable that there will be trouble at some point. All the more because policy execution seems to have become, for local purposes, the sharp end of our relations with some of our neighbours.

Government is asking the navy, and customs boats, to do a lot of dirty work. That it is shrouded in secrecy is, to many, an indication that it is shrouded in shame. Those doing the dirty work as duty neither like it, nor the innuendo that it must be somewhat disgusting because the public is not allowed to know.

The idea that the secrecy is simultaneously ''sending a message'' to potential boat people but also denying them access to useful information is political nonsense. No one knows that better than those who are actually ''on-water''.

The risks might well involve lives. Defence believes it unthinkable that squabbles about whose search and rescue zones a boat is in could lead to a refusal to attend to a craft in distress.

But some fear that it could come to that - and perhaps mutiny if politicians get in the way of common humanity. Some also fear that politicians on either side of the Timor Sea might use the lives of hapless men, women and children fleeing war and oppression, to make wider points for domestic advantage.

There are many people, including me, who want to see our shameful policies fail. But heaven forfend that it follow some maritime disaster of the type made more likely by our confrontational policies. Most of the affection and respect for our service people, and their service, flows from a tradition of mass civilian enlistment in the only engagements during World Wars I and II where our involvement made even a slight difference to world affairs.

One could easily see how bad judgment, perhaps by a professional force trying desperately to anticipate political whim - might make many Australians rather more detached and unforgiving.