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The unjustified secrecy of the Abbott Government

Jack Maxwell |  10 August 2014

“'GovernmentSecrecy'Secrecy has been a hallmark of the Abbott Government to this point. It barred the release of the Department of Treasury’s ‘blue book’, a briefing book prepared for the incoming government before the last election. Media appearances by Ministers must be cleared by the Prime Minister’s office. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, which conducts external review of freedom of information decisions, has been abolished.

Over the past month, however, it has broken new ground. In the first week of July, we were faced with a particularly disturbing situation. Our government was apparently detaining over 150 people, incommunicado and in an unknown location. And the responsible Minister was refusing to answer questions.

Australians could be forgiven for wondering just what kind of government we were living under. The Tamil asylum seekers have since been whisked from the high seas to Curtin detention centre, and now to Nauru. But the secrecy shrouding the Abbott Government in general, and asylum seeker policy in particular, persists.

Why is this alarming? Several different stories can be told that explain the pernicious influence of secrecy in government. Secrecy subverts political accountability. Utilitarians like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham recognised that only an informed citizenry could hold its government to account, in public debate and (ultimately) at the ballot box, for misusing public power.

Secrecy also makes us less free. The state interferes with our lives constantly. We usually have the information and the avenues to challenge interference that seems illegal or unjust. When the exercise of public power becomes covert, arbitrary and secretive, however, the state begins to dominate its citizens.

Finally, secrecy undermines self-respect. John Rawls thought that people’s sense of their own worth hinged on the development of their capacity to engage with questions of justice. But information is required to participate in these debates, whether in the area of asylum seekers, school funding or intelligence powers.

These are strong moral arguments for transparency in government. They suggest that we should adopt a robust presumption in favour of openness, leaving it to those who assert the need for greater secrecy to prove it.

Of course, there are instances in which secrecy is justified, or even required. First, secrecy can promote effective deliberation, allowing parties to speak more honestly and make compromises without the threat of a backlash. Second, the release of certain information can cause direct harm. We recognise that divulging confidential medical records or the identities of spies would harm innocent people. Third, transparency might undermine the efficacy of a beneficial policy. The concealment of the times and locations at which ticket inspectors operate on public transport is acceptable, because otherwise the policy itself would be defeated.

To prove that one of these exceptions applies, however, an actual argument needs to be made. The Abbott Government has asserted broadly that the release of information gives ‘aid and comfort to the people smugglers’. But given the presumption in favour of transparency, this claim should be a springboard for debate, not a gag. How does particular information provide ‘comfort’ to people smugglers? Why is this relevant? The fact that the navy does not shoot smugglers on sight presumably also provides them some comfort, but there is no call to conceal it. What kind of information – boat arrivals, turn-back procedures, conditions in detention – ‘aids’ the smuggling trade, and how? In failing to answer these questions, the Abbott Government has failed to make the case for the sweeping secrecy of Operation Sovereign Borders.

This opaque regime cannot be justified on the grounds of good deliberation. Lieutenant General Angus Campbell has stated that it helps ‘acknowledge bi-lateral and regional sensitivities in the counter-people-smuggling effort’, but it’s difficult to understand what that means. Is this information blackout for the sake of avoiding some red faces in Indonesia?

The release of information about the treatment of asylum seekers on navy vessels and in detention also would not cause harm to innocent people. Quite the opposite. It is crucial to allow the protection of those seeking aid, given their vulnerable position. Just last week, it emerged that the Immigration Department attempted to suppress information about children’s mental health problems in detention.

The most plausible justification for this secrecy appears to be efficacy. Publicising information about how boats are approached and turned back might allow people smugglers to circumvent this operation. 

The fact that secrecy is necessary for the success of a policy, however, is not sufficient to justify its secrecy. The core aim of the policy must also be beneficial, and its benefits must outweigh the costs of secrecy. With respect to Operation Sovereign Borders, this is at least an open question.

Furthermore, the scope of the secrecy must be limited to what is necessary. Returning to the ticket inspector example, the fact that there are inspectors, the size of fines, and the rights of suspected fare evaders are all public knowledge. Reports of misconduct by inspectors may lead to public enquiry. None of this is inconsistent with inspectors fulfilling their valuable function. By contrast, the secrecy surrounding asylum seeker policy stretches far beyond this test of necessity.

This kind of scrutiny is one way in which liberal democracies keep secrecy in check. Where secrecy is justified, this justification should itself be public. The Abbott Government has failed miserably on both counts. It has withheld important information from the public on questionable grounds, and it has shielded itself from criticism by stifling debate on whether that secrecy is justified. As anti-terror legislation and government surveillance now move into the political spotlight, we can only hope that things become clearer.

Jack MaxwellJack Maxwell is a second year law student at the University of Melbourne who completed an honours degree in philosophy in 2012.


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Submitted comments

"Australians could be forgiven for wondering just what kind of government we were living under." We are living under the heel of a colonial power, elected by us as a result of shameless trickery on their part and culpable gullibility on our part.

Jim Jones 11 August 2014

An excellent analysis of a most disturbing situation. Thank you.

Noel Kapernick 11 August 2014

Good analysis on impact of unwarranted secrecy. Not only does it undermine self respect but it also erodes the sense of a decent society. According to Avishai Margalit, the mark of a decent society is that it' s leaders and institutions doe not humiliate people. Clearly this level of secrecy without any justification humiliates us all.

Joseph 11 August 2014

Hear! Hear J.J.! Succinctly put.

Brian Larsson 11 August 2014

Thanks for this thoughtful article, which prompted me to recall what commitments the present Government made before the last election. I referred to Bianca Hall's 3 Nov 2013 article on Fairfax media, "Silence echoes across Canberra as the Coalition clams up" (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/silence-echoes-across-canberra-as-the-coalition-clams-up-20131102-2wt5k.html). Ms Hall quotes the Liberal Party's own platform "Real Solutions" (http://www.liberal.org.au/real-solutions), which promised a new era of transparent government. "The Coalition will do the right thing for Australia and deliver a strong, stable, accountable government that puts the national interest first and delivers a better future for all Australians," it vowed. "We will restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you." In my case, I've little problem with metadata retention; if I've got nothing to hide, then what have I to worry about?

David Arthur 11 August 2014

Thanks, Jack. We should all be alarmed and fearful for what we do not know! There needs to be, too, some blowing apart of that dangerous but apparently justifatcory expression 'in the public interest'. I would really like to read what you might have to say about that in your penetrating and lucid way.

Stuart Blackler 11 August 2014

I remember working in a commonwealth department over thirty years ago which had security assessment designated positions. The department's security section was asked what should be the security classification of the department's internal telephone list.The security section recommended RESTRICTED i.e. its circulation should be limited to those with a "need to know". The section's branch head was concerned that there could be some adverse security consequences if the list fell into the "wrong hands" (unspecified), so he suggested upgrading the classification to CONFIDENTIAL. His divisional head went one further and speculated what the damage to security would be to national security if a hostile intelligence service obtained a copy of the list, so he suggested upgrading the list to SECRET. I tell this story to illustrate the point that in bureaucracies there are no objective criteria for assessing the need for secrecy. The ultimate criterion seems to be fear of what might happen if an enemy (broadly defined) obtains the information. The greater the fear, the higher the degree of secrecy. Despite the logic of Jack Maxwell's analysis it won't change the minds of ministers (and their servants) who fear all sorts of consequences if the facts come out.

Uncle Pat 11 August 2014

Sadly the majority of my co-Australians are not well-versed in the processes of true democracy. They are constantly fed with bold headlines from a bias media conglomerate (News Corp), brainwashed by three-word slogans (Stop The Boat, Bring Them Home ad nauseam) and easily taken by well-honed political propaganda - instead of policies. The secrecy that surrounds the treatment of asylum seekers is ridiculous and it's patently obvious that Morrison should be charged for violating UN Human Rights law. Subsequently, the country should also be condemned for allowing such acts of barbarity to continue. We are not the kind of people who burn government buildings and riot in the streets. By the same token we all have to wake up from this moronic stupor and see the incumbents for what they are; a totalitarian government.

Alex Njoo 11 August 2014

how can our nation tolerate the 'left hand' not knowing what the 'right hand' is doing? We have a fitting service for the Australians who died from a plane crash in Ukraine (poignant and appropriate) AND at the same time WE (Team Australia) impose anguish and despair onto people needing our help ... i feel so conflicted and diminished by such contradictions. Silence takes many forms ...

mary tehan 11 August 2014

The Abbott Government, the worst and the most totalitarian Australia has ever had works on three principles: 1 Lie about any issue that might threaten our electoral position, 2.Lie as often about it as often as is necessary. 3. If 1 and 2 don't work, impose secrecy. It's a fearsome programme.

Joe Castley 11 August 2014

Tony Abbott does not expect to receive votes from The Greens, Left wing Labor, Friends of ABC and Fairfax newspapers subscribers. But who cares, he will get many votes at the next election for his second term.

Ron Cini 11 August 2014

I don't remember the media asking these questions. They have also failed us.

Peter Horan 11 August 2014

It may not have occurred to you, Jack, that the general population is fed up with press announcements, particularly as they were generated by the Labor Government with their daily press interviews in preceding years.. It doesn't matter one twat as far as I am concerned what is happening on a day-to-day basis by government, nor does it impact on my life. Knowing there is a boat at sea with people illegally wanting asylum, is the business of government - it's my not business. I voted the government in, I trust the government to do its job. I didn't vote you in to give me a run-down on your thoughts and perhaps they don't matter as much as you think, nor as much as most journos think about themselves and their pontifications on everything that moves..

shirley McHugh 12 August 2014

Uncle Pat and Peter Horan illustrate the bureaucratic and journalistic complicity with secret government policies and practices. Despots and repressive regimes cannot do their stuff without collusive support. As the article points out the fulcrum for raising secrecy barriers is the fear and the threat of the enemy finding out. Does the government see us as the enemy?

Michael D. Breen 12 August 2014

When the details of the scandal of how badly this government and its henchmen have been treating "legal" asylum seekers, there will be a huge day of reckoning. And it will come out because there are just too many witnesses,

Eugene 12 August 2014

Secrecy smacks of Orwell's 1984. or Huxley's ''Brave New World''. How sad that our country has come to this situation. If we don't know what is happening, the democratic process could give way to an evil dictatorship. Take care Australians! How do we want to be governed?

Bernie Introna 13 August 2014

Thank you Jack for this great article. When this government is gone hopefully our next government is far more transparent.

Joe 08 January 2015

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