If only thanks to the ignorance of Jaymes Diaz, most Australians knew Prime Minister Tony Abbott had a six-point plan to ''stop the boats.'' Abbott never did say that the six-point plan was in fact a seven-point plan, by which his government would put under close political control all information about what it was doing, would carefully control and sanitise what was released, usually a week or more after events, and would place everything under a web of spin, and pseudo-military censorship and the minister's theories about getting the jump on people smugglers by keeping them guessing. Hardly any information made available will be able to be regarded as complete, reliable or able to satisfy public expectations that the use of force against people fleeing persecution and war is proper and humane, and in accordance with our international obligations.
The presence of a deferential major-general alongside Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will lend the farce no authenticity, or promise that the people are being told the truth, and, in particular the whole truth. The Australian military has had, in recent times, a very bad record of censorship, of failure to admit or draw to public attention anything which it fears might hurt its reputation, of an excessive addiction to secrecy and of overuse of claims that disclosure could affect active operations. Defence tells the media and Australians less about our operations in Afghanistan than Americans, Britons and Europeans are told. That has not made Australian soldiers safer but it has protected their commanders, and our politicians, from criticism, which has been the purpose of the censorship. With military operations against unarmed fishing boats containing civilians, including children, one can hardly pretend military necessity for censorship. So, instead, it is argued that knowing the truth may help people smugglers devise evasion tactics. The real truth is the minister no more wants Australians to know what he is asking our soldiers and sailors to do than he wants the world to see. If they did, political support might collapse.
There is yet another reason for concern about the program of politicisation, centralisation and censorship being devised by Mr Morrison. It is based on the 2001 experience with the children overboard affair, which also occurred after ministers had completely politicised the disclosure of information, and forbidden the services and civilians involved from speaking to the media. The outcome was that lies were told to the public and used for political purposes. Though the military soon knew the truth, military and political expediency took over, with some senior officers failing to correct a record they knew, or effectively knew to be false. It was an appalling display of spinelessness and want of honour. A proper habit of accepting orders from government became confused with deference to, and complicity in political lying. Its consequences convulsed Australian politics for years. Ultimately, the bureaucracy was to formally face and accept responsibility for its own part in the affair; there are few real signs that the military learnt anything at all from the episode.
Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison were able to make a major political issue of boat people because the previous government generally disclosed the facts and in good time too. Those disposed to offer commentary or criticism of the new policies will have far less access to uncontested facts. There were certainly deficiencies in the last government's disclosure, as well as in the use of public servants as promoters, supporters and marketers of the policies of the day. But the answer to criticism is not to promote less information, less transparency and less accountability. Nor is it to hide behind uniforms or the pretence of operational secrecy.
The perversity is that if there was any mantra chanted by Mr Abbott more than slogans about stopping boats or waste, it was about openness, transparency and accountability. So often, indeed, did he use such words (there are 17 pages of references to his use of the word ''transparency'' on his own website) that the public might be justified in saying the resort to censorship and political control of information has proven to be a lie by implication, of no less unworthiness than former prime minister Julia Gillard's somersault on carbon taxes.
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