The big brothers and sisters in the Prime Minister’s Office have been on the job in vetting the troops’ media appearances – right down to a backbencher on pay TV.
Jane Prentice, a Liberal from Queensland whom many thought should have got a spot on Tony Abbott’s frontbench, was due today to appear on Sky News’ Lunchtime Agenda.
The program gives the guests a rundown of topics – a courtesy that is often not extended by media to politicians. These included Australians spying on Indonesia, and Holden.
Prentice ran them by the PM’s office. The response was that she should not go on, and she pulled out 90 minutes before the show. The government had obviously felt enough had been said on the spying and the car industry.
Prentice was scheduled to spar with Labor’s Kelvin Thomson, but the Greens Sarah Hanson-Young had to be substituted.
After the election, an edict telling frontbenchers to clear their media appearances with the PM’s staff was an early sign of how things would be.
The Prentice incident is just the latest (small) example of both government information management and the centralised control exerted by the Abbott office, under the guiding hand of chief of staff Peta Credlin.
Liberal backbenchers don’t always have to be told. They are being very cautious in their comments about everything just now. One reason may be that the chairs of parliamentary committees are yet to be announced. These much sought after positions are in the gift of Abbott.
It’s rather an irony that while the Abbott office is trying to micromanage a lowly backbencher, the Nationals at cabinet level are free-ranging on the contentious issue of GrainCorp.
On the control and secrecy front, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is in the gold star class, delighting at his weekly briefings in saying what he won’t say.
After coming under criticism for his approach a defiant Morrison wrote in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday last week that the government was not going “to provide open access to [detention] centres for media as not only does this raise false hopes among detainees who believe media coverage of their plight will change the outcome of their case, but also can encourage non-compliant behaviour within the centres that can make a difficult job even harder for those who work there”.
But how does that square with the report, released later in the week, done by a former head of the Attorney-General’s department, Robert Cornall, into allegations of sexual and other assaults at the Manus Regional Processing Centre?
Cornall wrote: “The [immigration] department should press the PNG government to co-operate in allowing media access to the Manus Regional Processing Centre in accordance with the government’s policy and the department’s established procedures for media access to onshore detention centres.
"Appropriate media reporting about the Manus RPC could reduce the likelihood of the dissemination of the sort of misinformation or misunderstanding which led to this investigation.”
The Cornall report was not issued with any announcement. It was just put up on the Immigration department’s website on Friday. So when Morrison had his weekly briefing that day, the journalists were not yet on top of it. (Anyone starting from scratch to look for the report needs a packed lunch – it has not been made easy to find on the site.)
The media and Morrison are now in a perpetual tug of war about secrecy.
And as time goes on, the more bolshie among the Liberal backbenchers might decide they will fight back against the PMO’s excessive control.