View from The Hill

Liberal secrecy a flawed strategy

Scott Morrison has relished secrecy in his new role. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Immigration minister Scott Morrison has embraced secrecy with indecent relish, and it is starting to get him into trouble.

His policy of announcing boat arrivals once a week, when they are transferred offshore, in the “Operation Sovereign Borders” news conferences is looking slightly ridiculous.

“We’re running a military-led border security operation,” Morrison told Sky today. From what we glean, those involved – military and civilian – are doing much what they were doing before.

It’s just that Morrison - and the government generally - has imposed a silence on all relevant authorities. Even the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which used to speak directly to the media on rescue operations, cannot do so. Queries must go to Operation Sovereign Borders.

Morrison’s attempt at information minimisation is never going to work because a lot of people (casual observers as well as officialdom) know things and both mainstream and social media will rush to get the stories out. The minister risks looking like the man who holds a leaking hose and gets sprayed in the process.

His secrecy can backfire in another way. Morrison has made a hash of dealing with an incident at Manus Island that occurred late last week. He was caught short when asked about it at a Friday news conference – he didn’t intend to raise it - and later had to correct himself.

Today he complained about “hysterical claims” about the incident, which involved a clash between PNG police and defence force personnel. Failure to provide quick, accurate and full information have possibly led to exaggerated allegations.

Morrison’s general approach, including questions not being answered for “operational” reasons, smacks of arrogance. “Operational” is being given a absurdly wide definition. Refusal to disclose arrivals boat by boat makes even less sense considering boat numbers have declined.

The minister is desperately trying to deny any credit to Kevin Rudd for the reduction, but the former PM’s draconian PNG solution was the big strike, with the new government backing up with its own actions.

Morrison’s instruction that arrivals are now to be called “illegal maritime arrivals” rather than “irregular arrivals” is another sign of his attitude.

Put aside the argument about whether “illegal” is correct terminology (each side can make a case). Why would he bother? Mainly to try to attach, in the public mind, the label “bad” to these people. “I’m not going to make any apologies for not using politically correct language to describe something that I am trying to stop,” he declared today.

One would have thought he would have more to occupy his attention. With so many people on Manus Island and Nauru, Morrison is sitting on a powder keg. It’s a situation where anything could go wrong at any point, made more difficult by the fact that it will take a long time to clear this backlog of people, quite apart from future arrivals.

The Abbott government has already indicated in its brief time in office that it wants to exercise as much control over information as possible. The PM’s office, for example, is anxious to have broad control of ministerial media plans.

Last week also saw another example of official secrecy when the Treasury rejected a freedom of information request to release its “blue book” advice to the incoming government.

The decision has been made by the department – rather than the government - and can be appealed. Redacted advice came out after the last two elections. But Treasury noted in 2010 “the strong views” of Tony Abbott that “the release of incoming government briefs would contravene the Westminster conventions”.

Among factors against disclosure the Treasury gave last week were that: “It is imperative that the Treasurer be provided with the opportunity to consider and reflect on the contents of the incoming government brief as he prepares to implement the government’s election commitments.”

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen says the opposition will pursue trying to get the information made public.

The emphasis on secrecy and control comes as new evidence shows the public’s distrust of government and political institutions.

Research out today tells a now familiar story. Monash University’s survey “Mapping Social Cohesion”, financed by the Scanlon Foundation found that between 2009 and 2013 trust in the government in Canberra “to do the right thing for the Australian people” had declined by 21 percentage points.

In 2009, 48% of respondents thought the government in Canberra could be trusted “almost always” or “most of the time”. In a big shift, only 31% had trust in 2010. By 2012 this was down to 26%; this year it was 27%.

The proportion believing government can be trusted “almost never” rose from 8% in 2009, to 15% in 2010, 20% in 2011 and 24% in 2012; in 2013, however, there was a fall to 19%.

Interestingly trust is related to age. It is relatively high among the young. In 2013 40% of those aged 18-24 believe the government in Canberra can be trusted “almost always” or “most of the time”. This fell to 26% among those 25-34%; 26% among those 35-44, 28% among those 45-54% and 27% in the 55-64 age group. Only 20% of those 65 and over thought the government could be trusted.

When people were asked about institutions, the lowest levels of trust were in trade unions, federal parliament and political parties.

The Australian distrust and disillusionment are in line with trends overseas, but are of concern nonetheless.

The Monash report says: “While issues of trust in Australia reflect global trends, Australia does not have the level of economic difficulties that characterise much of the developed world.

"Negative factors specific to Australia include the tone of Australian parliamentary debate, the extent of personal attacks on politicians in the media, and the fierce politicisation of climate change and asylum seekers issues.”

The latest survey of 1200 people was done in July and early August – before the change of government, reflecting a significant decline of trust in the Labor years, and before the revelations of over-claiming and rorting of parliamentary entitlements. Funds now paid back have varied from claims for attending political colleagues weddings, including by Abbott and now Attorney-General George Brandis to Liberal backbenchers Don Randall claiming for a trip from Perth to Cairns with his wife in relation to the purchase of an investment property.

Nothing is more likely to boost public cynicism in politicians. Although the guidelines are clear enough and don’t objectively require strengthening, there is an argument for doing so to increase public confidence in the system. On the other hand, people are so distrustful of politicians’ motives they’d probably view that totally cynically.

Listen to Christopher Pyne on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.