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Stop the Information

Are quiet governments better governments?

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Tony Abbott went to the election with a prophylactic immigration policy, intent on meeting asylum seekers on boats halfway and sending them back to Indonesia. But since coming to power in September, details released by the government on asylum seekers have been marred with truncations. The Government has been criticised for its lack of transparency, and even accused of a political cover-up.


What does the increased secrecy mean for all of us? After all, the boats have stopped (well they've stopped reaching Christmas Island and Western Sydney – they're still trying though). And how do you determine what constitutes transparency, what is the paradigm for transparent government, how does it improve the everyday lives of citizens?

Researchers at the University of Gothenburg looked at exactly these questions in 2012 by looking at the relationship between transparency and quality of government. They found three dimensions to measure this—government openness, whistleblower protection, and publicity.

Their research found that administrations with lower rates of corruption and a greater respect for basic human rights provided greater publicity and access of information to their citizens. It works the other way too—the most secretive governments have less respect for human rights and more corruption.

Transparency also depends on other factors like rule of law, measures for accountability, public participation, and a free press.

The World Press Freedom Index, compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders, reflects the level of freedom of information afforded to journalists, news organizations and netizens around the world, as well as efforts made by authorities to ensure and protect press freedom. In 2013 Australia was rated as having a “satisfactory situation” for journalists, and as of this year we currently rank at 26 on the index. It's a big drop from the highest ranking of 12 in 2002, and far from the levels of independence journalists have in Scandinavian countries, or New Zealand.


Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced a stop to what he called the “shipping news service for the people smugglers,” with press conferences on boat arrivals scaled back to a weekly Friday briefing. Then, two months later, the briefings stopped. In February Morrison indicated they would not be resuming, and any future briefings would be held on an “as-needs basis”. The Minister has doggedly refused to comment on any “on-water operations,” and turn-backs by the navy are still yet to be confirmed by the Government, despite six lifeboats packed with asylum seekers washing up in Indonesia.

The Department of Immigration recently refused a request under freedom of information laws to release a list of briefings made to Scott Morrison, despite releasing an identical list when Tony Burke was the Minister last year.

The immigration minister has put the secrecy surrounding Sovereign Borders down to the fact it is a military-led operation. Current Australian Defence Force protocols dictate that any actions carried out by Special Forces is highly classified and personnel should never be identified by name. Yet, when has refugee policy implementation become a matter for the Special Forces?

In an opinion piece published by the Sydney Morning Herald, former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser said “The government’s commitment to secrecy should be a concern for everyone. Secrecy is completely inadequate for democracy but totally appropriate for tyranny.”


While it might seem somewhat incongruous to Liberal doctrine today, Fraser championed for greater immigration during his time as PM. In 1979, his policy of multiculturalism saw Australia take in a large number of refugees from South East Asia in the wake of the Vietnam War. Efforts to bolster Australia’s population through immigration have since changed to a “fuck off, we’re full” approach.

It’s no secret that Australia’s reputation is somewhat tainted when it comes to human rights as a result of refugee policy. This is what Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2014 had to say:

Successive governments have prioritized domestic politics over Australia’s international legal obligations to protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees…

In 2013 the UN Human Rights Committee found Australia to have committed 143 human rights violations against people seeking asylum. In light of the Gothenburg study, if Australia’s respect for human rights is on the decline, it would make sense for our transparency levels to follow. The decline in respect for human rights which started under Labor has expanded into a culture of secrecy under the new Government.

Secrecy is not a new thing in Australia. Following the death of a Sri Lankan refugee at Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre in October 2011, Labor’s then-immigration minister, Chris Bowen, restricted the access of reporters to the centre. Journalists were required to sign a “deed of agreement,” surrendering copies of any photography, video and audio recordings to the Department of Immigration for approval. Likewise, in November the following year the Department of Immigration denied Australian journalists access to the offshore processing facility in Nauru during an Amnesty International inspection, claiming a media presence might ignite violence.

There might be some poetic justice in the Coalition’s attempt at secrecy. When the Government doesn't give journalists the information they need, they'll try to find it elsewhere – like talking directly to asylum seekers.  And as Sam Bateman, a Professorial Fellow at the University of Wollongong, said on the issue:

When the leaks about actual operations occur, the rumours may do more harm to Australia’s international image than the actual facts.

Still, the Government doesn't seem worried. Until the UN is run by residents of marginal seats they've got no reason to be.