The rise and rise of secrecy
Compilation and comment by Barry Tucker
The Australian Liberal-National Party coalition government elected with a large majority on 7 September, 2013, is exhibiting an unpleasant and unwelcome tendency towards secrecy.
The national leader (I refuse to use the title of Prime Minister in relation to this person), Tony Abbott, announced his intention to make himself scarce soon after the election and has kept his word. This is in stark contrast to his behaviour during the previous four years: constant Suspension of Standing Orders stunts in parliament as Opposition leader, constant appearances in fluro vest or hard hat at photo opportunities in shops, factories, workplaces in general, as well as wide publicity for his Pollie Pedal charity event and his bush fire-fighter volunteer appearances. It seems he could never get enough publicity to satisfy himself. On top of that, most of the news and entertainment media, commercial and taxpayer funded, was behind him.
Abbott, and his chief-of-staff Peta Credlin, maintained strict discipline over coalition party members. Credlin has been criticised for bawling out elected MPs while Abbott contented himself with stern warnings about “freelancing from the backbench” and mild wrist slapping for a few miscreants. Those Abbott finds hardest to control are the Australian branch members of the USA’s Republican offshoot, the Tea Party, which had its origins about 33 years ago in the pro-tobacco lobby. The Liberals and their big tobacco funded “think tank” (policy developers), the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), are somewhat conflicted over big tobacco, although the party has recently been embarrassed into rejecting its cash.
Earlier this year, when it seemed likely (according to news media reports) that there would be an early federal election, Abbott ordered his MPs to shut up and (it is claimed) told the Liberal fan club to stop trolling and baiting Labor fans on Twitter and other social media. I have no proof of the order, but there was a noticeable drop in trolling then and it has happened again since. The Liberals have a proclaimed policy of freedom of speech, and believe in a free Press and personal freedom.
During the election campaign Abbott ordered some candidates to refuse media interviews. This followed the spectacular failure of Western Sydney candidate Jaymes Diaz to elaborate on Abbott’s six-point plan to “stop the boats”. In an interview on Sydney radio 2UE a few days later, Abbott said in regard to Diaz: “He may not be able to explain policies in an interview, but he will vote for them. He will vote for them.” What a disgraceful commentary on the true nature of our political representation.
Abbott was also carefully selective about the invitations he accepted to appear on tv and radio, preferring mainly the Murdoch owned Sky tv and some Sydney radio shock jocks — all of whom treated him favourably. Since winning the election, Abbott has almost completely disappeared from public view. The first sitting of the new parliament will not take place until 12 November, again limiting public and news media scrutiny and reporting and questioning by the Labor Opposition and other parties and Independents.
For six years Abbott and his gang attacked the former Labor government over its refugee or asylum seeker policy, expressing horror at Labor’s last-minute policy decision to refuse citizenship to new boat arrivals and despatch them permanently to Papua New Guinea. During the election campaign the Liberals, renowned for their hypocrisy, adopted the same policy and added Operation Sovereign Borders — a military-style campaign led by a three-star general, who had to be promoted to get the third star. The campaign may or may not include turning back refugee boats. Such operational details and incidents are protected by secrecy to avoid providing information to the “enemy”.
Following appointment as Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison and Abbott together announced the end of daily news bulletins about new boat arrivals, which would be covered in a weekly press conference on Mondays only. Since then, the conferences have been held on various days, including Mondays. In another example of Liberal hypocrisy, Morrison referred to the previous government’s announcements of boat arrivals as “shipping news”. Such reports would be stopped, he said, because the Liberal government would not run a “shipping news” service for people smugglers. Morrison was more than happy to use the previous government’s announcements of boat arrivals to rub Labor’s face in its failure to stop the refugee boats. Apparently that wasn’t seen as running a shipping news service or aiding the enemy.
While the government is trying to block news and keep its citizens in the dark, the administrator of Christmas Island and one union official on the island are releasing information as it becomes available. Boat arrivals are being logged by @archiearchive on his website.
During Abbott’s first visit to Indonesia since the election, he made a phenomenal error of judgement, insulted the Indonesian news media and somehow escaped an international diplomatic incident by rudely excluding Indonesian journalists from one of his news conferences. Umar Idris, chairman, Jakarta branch of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, was furious and said in Indonesia it is in fact illegal to block journalists’ access to information.
The new Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, made a lot of noise during the previous 12 months about what he saw as Labor’s attack on “Press” and personal freedoms. His thoughts are displayed in great detail in The Freedom Wars (or choose from this list). That was before the Liberals were caught out for a nasty little detail concerning censorship in their Internet election policy — on the night it was released. Oops! That was not supposed to be in there. Since then Brandis has not been so noisy, but he has been busy. He has appointed as his chief-of-staff one Paul O’Sullivan, a former chief of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
There is an unhealthy relationship between key members of the Australian Liberal Party, especially Brandis, State police, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and now former senior members of ASIO. Police and intelligence forces should work for the government — the government of the day. They should not work for this government but against that government, depending on the government’s philosophical flavour. I know from personal experience that police forces and journalists share a working relationship because they rely on each other for information or cooperation in regard to news stories. The Liberal’s relationship, and that of Sydney shock jock Ray Hadley, go beyond this. Hadley has a son in the NSW police force.
This situation becomes serious when it is seen in the context of the fraud allegations against former NSW federal Labor MP Craig Thomson. Police and court actions involving Thomson seemed to be timed for the worst possible moment for Labor and at an opportune time for the former Liberal Opposition. In one notable incident, Thomson was arrested at home in NSW by Victorian police, held overnight and taken to Melbourne the following day. That incident occurred during and interrupted an Abbott address to the National Press Club. If the address didn’t make the news, Thomson’s arrest certainly would. Police have since admitted mistakes were made during the arrest period, the 150-odd charges and their dollar value have been whittled down and the case has gone to mediation.
Similarly, the AFP has been used in the persecution of former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper. Slipper was a member of the Liberal party when he made a tour by hire car of wineries near Canberra. By agreement with the driver, the fares were divided into four trips to suburbs. Some time in 2011, Slipper was told he would not be the Liberals’ next candidate for his Queensland seat. Former Minister Mal Brough would be preselected instead. When Slipper accepted Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s offer of Speakership he was expelled by the Liberals. His decision affected the critical voting numbers in the hung or minority parliament.
Before Slipper became Speaker he was negotiating with James Ashby over eventual appointment as a media adviser. During this period Slipper sent Ashby certain text messages of a sexual nature. After he was employed, Ashby sued Slipper and the Commonwealth, alleging workplace harassment by Slipper and he included allegations of Slipper’s misuse of CabCharge dockets. Justice Rares found Ashby’s case unwarranted, adding that it amounted to a scheme by Ashby and Brough to politically damage Slipper. He ruled that the CabCharge allegations were irrelevant to the harassment case. There have since been other allegations as to what extent other members of the Parliamentary Liberal Party were involved in preparing or encouraging Ashby’s case. Writing for web magazine IA, Vince O’Grady has shown that the texts Ashby complained of were sent at a time when Ashby was not an employee of Slipper or the Commonwealth. Ashby’s case would appear to be flimsy, but he has appealed Justice Rares’ rejection of it.
Meanwhile, the AFP are refusing requests to investigate the affair that has become known as Ashbygate. They have instead launched a prosecution against Slipper over his handling of CabCharge dockets. It’s interesting that these dockets are not those mentioned in Ashby’s submission to the court, but older dockets. It seems the AFP could not act on the dockets that Justice Rares found irrelevant. Following Justice Rares’ ruling, someone, most likely Attorney-General Brandis, has found older dockets and referred them to the AFP for investigation, which has resulted in charges being laid against Slipper. The case is not finalised. This is interesting because since 1998 federal politicians’ dubious expense claims have been referred to the Finance Department and rejected claims are simply refunded, under the Minchin Protocol.
Sine the federal election of 7 September federal government Ministers and at least one Labor MP have been scrambling to go over old expense claims and in some cases to issue refunds for them. This has occurred since a story broke that Brandis and National Party deputy leader Barnaby Joyce claimed expenses incurred while attending the wedding of personal friend and shock jock Michael Smith two years ago. What is curious about this is the fact that it remained in the background for two years. Abbott’s habit of claiming expenses for anything and everything has been in social media for at least a year. He has since refunded expenses he claimed for attending the wedding of Slipper and that of former Liberal front bencher Sophie Mirabella.
Abbott’s expenses are extraordinary. His bill for refurbishment of the Opposition Leader’s office and office expenses was almost 300 times higher than that for the Prime Minister last financial year.
The Labor Opposition has offered Abbott a bipartisan review of the rules of politicians’ expense claims but Abbott has declined. Why would he agree to a review when he has been handsomely profiting from the situation? And an open inquiry into claims politicians have made would leave Abbott and others very exposed.
Earlier this week Labor MP Rob Mitchell referred Abbott’s expenses to the AFP, with a request that they be investigated. This is not identical to the referral of Slipper’s CabCharge dockets to the AFP (for reasons that I cannot state because the matter is undetermined by the court), but the procedures appear to be similar. However, I learnt this morning that the AFP has referred Mitchell’s request to the Finance Department (the Minchin Protocol, working the way federal MPs intended!).
Several journalist are currently having difficulties securing documents under Freedom of Information legislation (FOI). One recently appealed for financial help because the cost to complete her request has been increased. Writing in The Weekend Australian today, Sean Parnell said: “A NEW era of government secrecy has been ushered in …” He was referring to applications for access to the Red and Blue books, briefing documents prepared by Treasury. There’s a much better, easier-to-follow story with explanations, by Lenore Taylor in the Guardian. The AFP is also dilly-dallying in regard to an FOI related to the Ashbygate affair and another on who referred Slipper’s CabCharge dockets to them.
It’s not hard to make out a case for the AFP itself to be investigated. Does it work for the Australian community or for the Liberal party? The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity is the body that investigates complaints.
Along with claiming expenses for weddings, parties, anything, the Liberals’ trademark hypocrisy is apparent in its plans (not yet well publicised) to declare war on NGOs by cutting funding — especially to those charities that are well organised and can conduct a campaign against any government. The fears have been spelt out in some mainstream news media, by Carol Taylor in AIMN, by some of the charities and the Australian Council of Trade Unions boss Ged Kearney.
This, like a lot of other things that are emerging, may well be Liberal philosophy at work, but it is not what people voted for in the last federal election. It’s my belief that a majority of the people mainly voted for an end to the Labor government’s shenanigans and not for any part of the Liberal platform — especially not for less transparency and more secrecy.
I do not believe the people voted for an end to the carbon tax either. It adds about 10 percent to electricity bills and households are over-compensated by payments that come from the amount the tax raises. In any case, it will cease mid next year and if Abbott has any political sense he will find an excuse to allow Labor’s planned carbon trading scheme to come into effect. In addition to secrecy, the new federal government owes its election to a huge degree of news media manipulation and cooperation. The waters of the debate about carbon pollution and possible solutions have been muddied to such an extent it is almost impossible to determine the true situation. Abbott can easily get his friends in the news media to make a case for a carbon trading scheme, in exactly the same way that this story, by his old university mate Greg Sheridan, rubbishes the whole idea. The @ABCFactChecker should analyse this story because it is critical of the ABC in more than one place.
Graphic provided by courtesy of Maybee @Maybee2011
Update, in its editorial comment on Monday, 21 October, 2013, Crikey.com expressed concern about “Worrying signs of a secretive government“. (Scroll down to Editorial Comment)
The editorial concluded: “Secrecy might seem the safe course for governments, but in the end it corrodes accountability and therefore performance, and destroys trust.”
Along with a tendency towards limiting and refusing to provide information, the new generation of Liberal governments in Australia are making some laws dealing with crime, evidence, defendant’s statements, association, even the wearing of certain clothing, more severe. The legal and civil rights of individuals are being weakened while the powers of police are being strengthened. The Queensland Liberal National Party State government’s new laws to crack down on “bikie gangs” are a prime example of this. Robert Corr, formerly a prosecutor with the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, comments on these new laws in Overland online magazine.
The NSW Liberal-National government has recently passed laws requiring tattoo parlor owners to provide details of people they associate with and any criminal record. In an article for CNN, Peter Shadbolt quotes Australian writer and journalist Adam Shand (author of “Outlaws: The Truth About Australian Bikers”) as saying the bikie threat was often exaggerated by State governments as a convenient populist target. It’s a revival of the law and order campaigns so prevalent in the ’70s and ’80s.
In recent State-wide raids on Victorian bike clubs the Army was used in a support role, providing heavy equipment haulers to remove confiscated vehicles. State governments do not have the power to command military forces, so this must have been organised by the federal Liberal government. The move against bike clubs has become a federal/State Liberal government campaign.
Update, 23 October, 2013. Tony Yegles, one of the operator’s of the Nofibs.com.au website, provided information about expense rorting to the AFP from 6 October to 16 October and requested action. He has now received the reply in the graphic below. See below graphic for more legible text. Mr Yegles’ name has been misspelt in the graphic.
Dear Mr Yelges [sic] (Yegles)
I refer to your correspondence to Australian Federal Police (AFP) dated 6th October 2013, 8th October 2013 and 16th October 2013 in which you request the AFP commence an investigation into the misuse of travel entitlements by the Hon Don Randall MP, the Hon Philip Ruddock MP, Prime Minister the Hon Tony Abbott MP, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, the Hon Barnaby Joyce MP, the Hon Julie Bishop MP and the Hon Teresa Gambaro MP.
The AFP is taking no action in relation to any of the allegations at this point in time. The AFP has forwarded your corresponence to the Department of Finance as the most appropriate agency to examine the use of entitlements by Federal Members of Parliament.
Thank you for the information provided.
In an article in The Conversation on Monday, 21 October, 2013, former Canberra Press Gallery doyen Michelle Grattan pointed out how the LNP federal government’s secrecy is “a flawed strategy”. The government has painted itself into a corner and will find it difficult to extricate itself.