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The government should stop throwing stones and answer the questions about the clash between naval personnel and asylum seekers

Defence minister David Johnston has stepped up the attacks on the ABC for their handling of the asylum seeker burns story. AAP/Nikki Short

What’s happening in the debate over asylum seeker allegations of mistreatment by naval personnel is extraordinary and alarming, both for public accountability and for journalism.

It’s also hard to credit the way the issue has unfolded.

We’ve seen concerted government and News Corp pillorying of the ABC over its report of claims that people had been made to put their hands on a hot engine pipe.

Tony Abbott has accused the ABC of being unpatriotic. The Australian has run enough pieces on the public broadcaster’s sins to wallpaper a small house. The government has refused to release the Navy’s account. Navy chief Ray Griggs has taken to Twitter, of all places, to reject the claims. Labor has been too nervous to push hard. After being criticised by its own Media Watch program, the ABC this week acknowledged its original reporting should have been “more precise”.

Fast forward to Friday’s Fairfax papers, in which Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard reports his in-depth interview with Yousif Ibrahim Fasher, who made the original claim. The crux of his allegation is that naval personnel restricted when people could go to the toilet and, during an altercation about this, grabbed the wrists of three men and forced their hands onto a hot pipe.

Fasher, the translator, who says he witnessed the contretemps, claims he was told: “Say to anyone: if you want to go to the toilet again, we will burn his hands”.

Fasher also alleged that two navy ships taking the boat back turned off their lights when close to the Indonesian shore.

Bachelard says two of the three men referred to refused to be interviewed; the third agreed but Indonesian authorities would not allow the interview in the hotel where he was being held and he wouldn’t leave it.

Defence did not answer 21 questions put by Fairfax. Immigration minister Scott Morrison responded that “the government does not give credibility to malicious and unfounded slurs being made against our navy personnel”.

However, defence minister David Johnston did appear on Friday (in another context) and it was a truly remarkable performance.

He explained he hadn’t said much about the ABC commentary on navy personnel because “I was extremely angry and have required a period of time to cool off”.

On the latest story and why Defence hadn’t answered the 21 questions, Johnston said border protection “is a civil public policy issue. It is not a military exercise”. Why didn’t the government put doubts to rest by investigating the allegations? “Because the ABC has a responsibility. If ever there was an event that justified a detailed inquiry, some reform, and investigation into the ABC, this is it.”

As the questioning went on, he said: “Let’s see the allegations first …. Let’s have more than just rumour, innuendo and hearsay”, adding that senior command had assured him there was nothing in the claims.

When asked whether he could explain the circumstances of the burnt hands, he said: “No I can’t. They are on-water matters that are not my responsibility because it is a civil public policy matter.”

Whatever the lines of responsibility in Operation Sovereign Borders, if the defence minister doesn’t have responsibility for the Navy, it’s a very odd situation.

The government has adopted the approach that if it simply denies everything, treats asylum seekers as people never to be listened to, and makes the ABC rather than the allegations the issue, it can get away with putting up the shutters.

Asked whether the navy should release material to settle any ambiguity, Abbott said: “What I am interested in doing is stopping the boats … I don’t want to do anything that might complicate that task.”

All usual practice is being flouted. Anyone who suggests more detail should be provided is apparently sledging stressed personnel who would never put a foot out of place. Yet when there were allegations of any irregular incidents involving Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, they were investigated by the authorities and reported on. And that was in a war situation. More recently, some personnel on a ship in Operation Sovereign Borders were taken ashore because of bad behaviour towards each other.

Morrison talks about “unsubstantiated claims”. Those sorts of claims are made all the time in different situations; if they are serious, they are looked into.

There are various possibilities here. That Fasher is a good liar (though as he said, it is not to his advantage to lie); that he’s a poor observer; or that what he says contains a greater or lesser degree of truth. The Bachelard story reinforces the strong case for having Navy release what it knows (including what inquiries it has made), and for Australian authorities to interview Fasher and properly investigate the allegations, making public the results.

Resorting to bluster, demonising, and flag waving doesn’t wipe away the questions. The government has succeeded in making this about the ABC’s credibility when its own credibility should be equally, and increasingly, in the frame. In these things the truth, good or bad, comes out in the end.

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