View from The Hill

Scott Morrison needs to get into the fact-checking business

Scott Morrison has had to backtrack on his initial comments about riots at the Manus Island detention centre. AAP/Alan Porritt

“What goes around, comes around,” cabinet minister Kevin Andrews said, when defending government attacks on the ABC’s reporting of allegations the Navy mistreated asylum seekers. Indeed it does, as Scott Morrison has found in relation to his initial reporting of the Manus Island violence.

At 8.43pm on Saturday night – the deadest news time of the week - the Immigration minister issued an I-was-wrong, backtracking from his initial claim that most of the Manus rioting took place outside the detention centre. Now he had been told that “the majority of the riotous behaviour” (which cost one life) occurred inside the perimeter.

In other circumstances the admission of incorrect information might have been excusable. The situation had been chaotic and the briefing was given very soon after.

But Morrison should not be cut any slack.

First, he cuts no one else any (viz, his tirade about the ABC’s coverage of the burned hands allegations).

Second, he was dismissive of various claims about the causes and nature of what might have happened on Manus. On Wednesday, for example, he said he had given “very fulsome press conferences … If others want to provide speculative reports and noise and chatter, well I’d encourage people to ignore that and stay focused on the official reports that I have provided.”

And third, for him to take nearly a week to sort out whether the disturbance was inside or outside the centre suggests, at the least, incompetent administration – a failure by his department to extract accurate information from the service provider (G4S) and others.

Morrison now seems to know a good deal more about the incident, and the role of the firm, G4S, that has run security at the centre, than he is revealing.

On Friday, when announcing an independent review by former head of the Attorney-General’s department Robert Cornall; in Saturday’s statement, and at Sunday’s news conference he was putting a lot of emphasis on the behaviour of the service providers from G4S.

During riotous behaviour within the centre, “service providers must conduct themselves lawfully and consistent with the service standards set out in their contract,” he said on Sunday. The review will look at their conduct, along with any other people found to be in the compound that night or otherwise involved (there have been reports of outsiders getting in).

G4S (which is handing over to Transfield, its contract having ended) has changed its tune too. It had first said a number of detainees “were injured after they breached the perimeter fence and the matter became a law enforcement issue for PNG authorities”. Now it is promising “the strongest disciplinary action against any employee found to have been involved in any wrongdoing”.

Morrison suggested on Friday Cornall would get his inquiry done “over the next few months” but if necessary this could be extended.

A long time frame for the inquiry (its terms of reference will be released Monday) would be unacceptable. It might have been a dark and chaotic night, as Morrison notes, but the investigation is unlikely to produce greater clarity by being strung out. There are interviews to be conducted but not some heap of complex documents to trawl through. We are not talking about the royal commission into union corruption here. Weeks, rather than months, should be the appropriate timetable.

The only advantage (and that is to the government) of prolonging it would be that the incident might be out of mind when the report came.

Morrison’s inaccuracies over the Manus events also strengthen the case, incidentally, for investigation of the burned hands allegations. The minister and others, including the Prime Minister, shrugged off calls for these claims to be probed by demonising both the asylum seekers and the ABC. The Manus affair shows the dangers of excessive certainty.

On-the-ground reporting from Manus has been difficult enough – but the government has tried to hamper it, as shown when Fairfax Media on Friday attempted to photograph Operation Sovereign Borders supremo Angus Campbell inside a police station cell where asylum seekers had been held.

According to the Fairfax Media account, an Immigration department official told the local police commander Fairfax Media had no right to take photos at the station. The commander then confiscated the equipment, later returning camera and computer after deleting the photographs.

The government’s mindset came through loud and clear in Tony Abbott’s Sunday comments, when he declared Morrison “an absolutely outstanding minister”.

“You don’t want a wimp running border protection, you want someone who is strong, who is decent and Scott Morrison is both strong and decent. … The important thing is that we are stopping the boats, we are ending the [drowning] deaths.”

Those are important things, but they are not be the only important aspects in running this policy, and you don’t have to be a “wimp” to appreciate that.

Michelle Grattan has a regular spot on ABC Radio National.

Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest Labor’s Immigration and Border Protection spokesman Richard Marles, here.

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