The return of asylum seekers to Indonesia is shrouded in secrecy.

The return of asylum seekers to Indonesia is shrouded in secrecy.

Scott Morrison's Department of Immigration employs 66 people in its media unit and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service employs a further 33 media people. What does this surfeit of public relations advice indicate?

I would suggest that the number of spin doctors in a minister's portfolio is a measure of the proximity of policies to public interest. The closer that policies are aligned to the public interest, the less need there is to persuade the public to accept them. The further that policies are from serving the public interest, the more the public needs to be manipulated and deceived, and the more public relations sophistry that is required.

One of the founders of the public relations profession, Edward Bernays, in an effort to justify the way PR undermines democracy, argued that the essence of democracy is ''the freedom to persuade and suggest''. He was the first to write books on public relations and apply theory to the practice of public relations, seeking to utilise psychology, sociology and other social sciences to manipulate the desires and beliefs of the public in ways that go far beyond mere publicity and advertising.

Bernays was a key proponent of the idea ''that changing the public's opinion - using PR techniques - about troublesome social movements and labour unions, was far more effective than hiring goons to club people''.

He also pointed out that those who manipulated ''the organised habits and opinions of the masses … constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country''.

Early public relations experts were not afraid to use the term propaganda to describe what they did. For example, George Fitzpatrick, thought to be the first Australian PR professional, was listed in the Sydney telephone directory before World War II as ''Registered practitioner in Public persuasion, propaganda, publicity''.

Alex Carey, author of Taking the Risk out of Democracy, defined propaganda as communications aimed at getting a target audience to adopt particular attitudes and beliefs.

Nowadays such activities are referred to as public relations although even that term is becoming tarnished and some practitioners prefer to refer to their jobs using labels such as public affairs, corporate communications, media relations, issues management or even public education. However the aims have not changed.

Perhaps one or two communications experts might be necessary to make sure departmental and personal communications are clear and unambiguous.

But why does Tony Abbott need 39 PR advisers? Morrison's 99 spin doctors beggar belief.

And that is not counting all the PR people who are employed by the private companies involved in detention of asylum seekers: Serco, G4S, Transfield and Toll Holdings.

Since 2003 the Department of Immigration has paid $5.6 billion to these private companies for detention. You can be sure that the companies are employing armies of spin doctors of their own to keep the money flowing. Their corporate profits go a long way to explaining the deviation of government policies from the public interest. It is little wonder it is so difficult to find out what is really happening on Manus Island.

No doubt Morrison's massive propaganda team is working on the appropriate spin to explain its own existence right now!

Professor Sharon Beder, University of Wollongong, is author of Global Spin and the website Business-Managed Democracy.