Senate Estimates have been unusually productive this week. In part, this reflects the recent experience in government that Labor’s Senators enjoy. It also reflects the numbers in the upper house: while the Greens and Labor collectively retain the balance of power, which they will until July, they are far better able to exert scrutiny on the Coalition government of Tony Abbott.
Given that, it was inevitable that Labor would use the opportunity of Senate Estimates to probe the government’s secretive border security policies. One exchange in particular has generated considerable controversy: the contretemps between Labor’s Stephen Conroy and General Angus Campbell, the man in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders.
As Bernard Keane pointed out yesterday, neither major party has much claim to purity when it comes to political cover-ups, or the politicisation of public officials. In opposition, the Coalition regularly attacked senior public servants, especially the former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry. For its part, the previous Labor government had no compunction in withholding information on many policies and operations, including in immigration.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to learn as much as possible about the increasingly secretive and unaccountable asylum seeker operations being undertaken by the government in the waters to our north. That’s exactly what Labor and the cross-benchers tried to do this week.
The result has been a mini-controversy over a grilling given Campbell by Conroy, in which the Senator accused the General of being involved in a "political cover-up". Conroy even summoned up some classic Aaron Sorkin, with a reference to A Few Good Men’s Colonel Jessup’s immortal line, “You can’t handle the truth!”
On the face of it, this seems like a provocative attack on an officer of good standing, by a Senator with a decidedly patchy record of his own. This is certainly the way the government is spinning the issue, demanding an apology from Conroy, and beating up on Opposition Leader Bill Shorten for not disciplining Conroy for his show of disrespect.
The Australian today went further, contrasting the careers of Campbell and Conroy in unflattering terms for the former Communications Minister. With a laughable added measure of unintended sexism, the newspaper asks its readers, “who is the better man?”
But if you read the transcript of the Estimates hearing, Conroy’s claims look justified. As the Estimates testimony makes clear, whatever his personal merits, Campbell continues to use the charade of "operational security" as a cloak with which to refuse comment on pressing issues of public policy.
So, for instance, the government’s claim that “on-water matters” are off limits to scrutiny means that Campbell would not answer a question from Senator Kim Carr about the use of orange life-boats, in which seaborne asylum seekers are being loaded and then towed back into Indonesian waters.
Senator KIM CARR: What arrangements have been made for the return of lifeboats that wash up on the shores of Indonesia?
Lt Gen. Campbell: As you are aware, that falls under the minister's claim for public interest immunity.
Senator KIM CARR: You are not telling us that either?
Lt Gen. Campbell: In regard to the point that it deals with operational on-water matters.
This is not a trivial issue. There is at least one report of three asylum seekers dying in the jungle after being washed up on a remote beach in Java. But the Australian Parliament was denied an answer for the bizarre reason that it happened at sea.
Later in Estimates, Conroy tried to press Campbell on why military-style operational secrecy was so necessary for immigration measures to deal with unarmed wooden boats. Pointing out that Operation Sovereign Borders seems to enjoy as much or greater secrecy as wartime operations by the SAS in Iraq, Conroy asked how Campbell could equate SAS-level secrecy with “the operations of taking on a few wooden boats at sea with unarmed personnel on them.”
Campbell’s reply is worth quoting at length, to give you an idea of the sort of doublespeak that currently reigns in Canberra:
"My efforts with regard to the management of information are singularly focused on those combinations of issues that I have outlined at estimates, at committee hearings and in the public: dealing with avoiding advantage to people smugglers, manipulation of potential clientele of people smugglers, the safety of our people and the management of bilateral and regional relationships and their sensitivities. Those issues in the context of this problem, Operation Sovereign Borders, is why I have come to a position on the management of public information relating to on-water activities."
In other words: no, we can’t handle the truth.
Public information, Campbell freely admits, is being managed – in other words, withheld. And it is being withheld by a military officer who is acting in a civilian capacity, as Campbell also admitted.
One of the useful aspects of Conroy’s interrogation is that we discovered that Campbell is not acting under military orders, in a chain of command from the Chief of the Defence Force. Rather, he is in effect moonlighting. Campbell is really a sort of roving public servant, coordinating Operation Sovereign Borders as a civilian policy.
“It combines the good efforts of up to around 16 agencies, all working across that span of source, transit, on-water and RPC environments,” Campbell told the hearings.
All of which gives the lie to the Coalition’s confected outrage at the insult to a serving officer. As a matter of legal and administrative fact, neither Australia nor Angus Campbell are at war, despite the highly militaristic trappings imposed on immigration policy by a government only too eager to wrap itself in the flag. Campbell is acting as a public servant, and as such, he is bound, like any other public servant, to answer the questions of Australia’s elected representatives in Parliamentary hearings.
So when a public servant refuses to answer a question in Senate Estimates, on the entirely spurious grounds of “the management of public information relating to on-water activities”, is that a “political cover-up”, as Conroy alleges?
Yes, it is. What else could it be? Campbell is withholding information on a critical aspect of public policy, using rules made up on a whim by a secrecy-obsessed government.
By placing a General in charge of a civil operation, the Coalition almost guaranteed that Campbell would become a controversial figure. By militarising immigration policy, the government has also politicised the military. If that leads to officers being handled roughly at Senate Estimates, no-one should be surprised. Public accountability doesn’t stop when men in uniforms get involved. Given the scandal-prone recent history of the Australian Defence Force, that’s just as well.
General Campbell has many more questions to answer. Labor and the Greens should keep asking them.
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