The secrecy around whether the Australian government has or has not paid people smugglers highlights a deeper problem with the way it is handling asylum-seeker policy. The withholding of information about government actions in pursuit of achieving its policy ends undermines its democratic accountability to the Australian people.
It has become commonplace for the Abbott government to hide behind the slogan of “operational matters” to refuse to give an account for its policy actions. The Labor opposition has also now refused to comment on allegations that similar tactics involving payments were used to “disrupt” the people-smuggling trade during its time in government.
The Abbott govermnent’s moves to shift asylum policy behind a veil of secrecy began immediately after taking office in September 2013. It appointed Lieutenant General Angus Campbell to take charge of “Operation Sovereign Borders”.
Then-immigration minister Scott Morrison, flanked by Campbell, provided updates with only general information on the government’s asylum-seeker policy at a weekly briefing session.
Secrecy undermines democratic accountability. Australia has a system of representative and responsible government. This means that the government governs on behalf of the people.
The main way the people hold the government to account is through voting in elections. But in between elections, the people have a responsibility to engage with the decisions of their representatives. To do this effectively, the people need information in relation to how the government is carrying out policy in their name.
When the government is carrying out controversial policies, secrecy serves two ends. It enables the government to implement policy through means that would otherwise come under severe question, and it spares the people the need to question policy and take responsibility for controversial actions that are carried out in their names.
The current operation of asylum policy is an excellent example. It is easier to accept the government’s policy of stopping the boats “by hook or by crook” if we don’t know the lengths the government has gone to in order to carry it out – or if we find out only after the fact, and it is too late to question the government’s actions.
The Australian people found out about the transfer of asylum seekers to orange lifeboats only after they were found stranded on the Indonesian coastline. They discovered that the government had returned 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers without entertaining their claims to asylum weeks after the incident occurred.
Secrecy encourages poor policy making. If a government believes it can do things in secret, it is encouraged to engage in clandestine practices that are simply unjustifiable.
Payments to people smugglers may be “operational”. And it is no doubt in the government’s interests not to reveal that they were made.
After all, knowledge of such payments is likely to encourage the people-smuggling trade, rather than prevent it. And it is also likely to damage Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla equated the payments to bribery and said that, if true:
Such an act is definitely incorrect in the context of bilateral relations.
However, this is the very reason that the information needs to be made public. There is little doubt that if the government knew that the information would be public, it would be disinclined to make the payments. Information about the actions of government is important then, not only so people can scrutinise particular policy actions, but also so that the government is constrained by the knowledge that its actions are under the public gaze.
Pressed on the issue of the alleged payment to people smugglers, Prime Minister Tony Abbott justified his refusal to confirm it had been made on the grounds that
I am in the business of supporting our agencies, not undermining them.
This illustrates a confusion about the role of government, and the role of information in holding the government to account. The agencies of the bureaucracy are a central part of government. They carry out the will of the executive and as such need to be open to the same scrutiny as ministers themselves.
It is right that the government should be supporting its agencies. But in a functioning democracy, this has to be done by defending their actions – not by removing them from scrutiny.