View from The Hill

Morrison reacts to heat over politicising the military

Minister Scott Morrison is attempting to shore up his political defences on Operation Sovereign Borders. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison loves to cast the battle against the boats in military terms. So we might apply that language to assess the continuing struggle between government and media over the secrecy surrounding the absurdly titled Operation Sovereign Borders.

Operation Transparency is still losing badly. But Morrison and Angus Campbell, the military commander of Sovereign Borders, have suffered some flesh wounds. They’ve made certain tactical adjustments.

Since the official briefing last week, which turned into a fiasco as they erected the wall of silence, there has been a bit of soul searching.

Morrison announced today the weekly briefings would in future be conducted in a new way. Lieutenant General Campbell would leave the news conference after giving his report and taking questions, rather than staying to the end as previously.

Finally, someone had realised that when you line up the military with a politician, it doesn’t necessarily enhance the politician, and it often compromises the military. Not that Morrison is going the full way and doing the briefing alone, which would be the most appropriate course.

Morrison said he changed the format at his initiative but there is a suggestion that it came from higher up the food chain.

Meanwhile the unfortunate Campbell must have shuddered at the endless replays of his stonewalling last week when questioners sought some detail. He looked appalling.

So today, apparently at his own instigation, he gave a long explanation of the case for secrecy. He argued that people smugglers used information about vessel arrivals “to market ventures to prospective passengers, and to maintain the momentum of their businesses”.

“I do not believe in secrecy for secrecy’s sake,” he declared.

Campbell said he hadn’t sought to clear his remarks with anyone. “They are based on my judgement as the commander of this operation”.

The obvious question was asked. Had the military raised these problems under the previous government? Campbell said he was “unaware of circumstances that might have arisen before Operation Sovereign Borders”.

If one was trying to make a convincing case for secrecy, a more detailed assessment of the past might have been useful.

As Morrison and Campbell were attempting to shore up their defences on one front, the minister was under attack on another – the allegation an asylum seeker who had been brought from Nauru to give birth in Brisbane had been denied after-hours access to her sick baby. The woman had spent the days with the baby but gone back to the detention centre at night.

Comments by Morrison and the hospital were at odds about access. Morrison said he had ordered a review after “mixed reports”. Tony Abbott, who is in Sir Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, regretted what had happened but said: “we’ve got to ask ourselves, why have any of these things happened? They’ve happened because people have come to Australia illegally.”

The ins and outs of the case may be complicated but the public takeout would be that a new mother was not given all the support she needed.

On yet another front comes the revelation that Serco, the company running the detention centre on Christmas Island has sacked one worker and disciplined others over sexual and other misconduct.

The opposition sees Morrison as currently the most vulnerable minister. In parliament this week much of its attack was concentrated on him.

A motion was passed by the Senate for him to table reports of boat arrivals as they happened – the very disclosure that the weekly briefings are designed to avoid.

The government would respond “in due course”, Morrison said today, then went on to list many orders for production of documents that Labor had failed to meet. It was passing strange, he said, that Labor would now be insisting on something it never complied with in government.

Presumably we can take that as a no.

Although the optics surrounding Morrison are dreadful the policy itself – to stop the boats – is making progress, despite three arrivals being reported at the latest briefing.

In time – no doubt quite a while off - Morrison might be able to claim “victory” in his military operation. But in the process he will have lost much skin. Philip Ruddock went through a similar experience in the Howard government. Once enjoying a reputation as a moderate, Ruddock’s period in Immigration dramatically changed perceptions of him, while the tough policy worked.

Morrison may think that so long as he delivers results for the government, nothing else will matter. But he has given colleagues, media and public an insight into his character and style as a political operator that might be unhelpful for his future ambitions.