Abbott Blacks Out the Media

When Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison recently said he would only be giving one media briefing a week on border protection issues, the alarm bells started ringing. A media blackout on an issue that virtually dominated the election?

Was this new nanny state intent on blanketing possible failures and mistakes in a bid to avoid the persecution doled out to its predecessor on an issue of so little significance even the usually tolerant Indonesians were getting irritated?

Not to worry, because the new Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who came into office on Sept. 13, has apparently stopped the boats. Media reports in October had the ruling coalition claiming they had accomplished in 50 days what the previous Labor government had failed to do, in, well, according to the coalition, never.

But most Australians were probably thinking the same thing:” “What the hell aren’t they telling us?” Because since Abbott took the helm, the coalition initiated a concerted exercise in official censorship and nobody knew how they were stopping these boats.

The Abbott government came into office pledging a new era of openness, but that didn’t last long. Ministers are not allowed to speak to the press without permission from the prime minister’s office. Morrison has imposed his delays on issues about people-smuggling. Agriculture Parliamentary Secretary Richard Colbeck apparently plans to outlaw secondary boycotts by consumers and environmentalists.

Thus Australians aren’t only ignorant about how ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ is going. It is becoming clear that the government is subjecting the public to a new and more comprehensive scheme, ‘Operation Information Embargo’.

In its first two months in office, the ruling coalition has moved to close down dissent and deny access to important information. Apart from border protection, the government has become tight lipped about virtually every topic it prefers not to receive criticism about, shielding itself and its policies from media scrutiny. This is not surprising considering Abbott’s team brandished the media as a sharp political weapon to decimate the troubled Labour government in the run-up to the last election.

The cone of silence backfired last Friday when the Australian media had to obtain information from the Indonesian media about a mid-ocean stand-off. As Murray Hunter writes nearby, an Australian vessel was trying to return a boatload of asylum seekers to Indonesia and was in terse negotiations with Indonesia’s Department of Legal, Political, and Security Affairs.

The conscientious gag on information does not bode well for transparency, especially on an issue that could so easily see a humanitarian problem pushed to the background and hidden from view. If the Coalition had its way, the Australian public would not have found out about this event until next week. If ever. When forced to confront the media at a press conference, Scott Morrison was impenetrable, obstinately evading all media questions.

As it turns out the military has been prowling the ocean proactively and attempting to turn back boats to Indonesia, which has criticized the policy from the start. In the Australian context public pressure led to extreme rhetoric and policies on asylum seekers and became a major campaign issue. Espionage allegations have been taken seriously by Jakarta, and Australia’s continuation with a unilateral policy decision Indonesia warned it would not support has sparked the Indonesian media and public’s interest in the way its government will manage these situations.

MP Christopher Pyne told ABC News that Indonesia had already accepted 10 boats. The information on the Australian side is far from clear. The Jakarta Post said six were recently rescued by Australian authorities but the past three requests for transfer were declined. Scott Morrison denies this and said only two requests were rejected. Nevertheless, the Jakarta Post reported that Indonesian Security Affairs Minister Djoko Suyanto confirmed Indonesia will no longer accept asylum seekers from Australia.

If the government was hoping that once out of sight and officially censored, Australians would readily accept that the problem was solved, they have not only underestimated the Australian public, but they have underestimated the Indonesians. Again.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten told the ABC that Abbott has damaged the relationship with Indonesia in record time and his ‘turn back the boats’ policy has failed. In light of the furor generated in Indonesia over revelations that the Australian embassy was being used to spy on Indonesian leaders, the Australia Indonesia relationship is now high on the agenda of Indonesia’s presidential candidates’ who will use these issues to show Australia that Indonesia is not a pushover.

The Indonesian media has extensively reported the spying allegations, giving the issue the sort of disproportionate attention that Australia gives to asylum seekers, and demonstrating that Indonesians view spying as a betrayal that will likely be used for politicking in upcoming campaigns.

Several Indonesian newspapers reported MP Ramadan Pohon calling for the severing of diplomatic ties with Australia, while MP Mafudz Siddiq said Australian diplomats involved should be expelled from Indonesia. Foreign Minister Marty Natelegawa has requested a confession and said such surveillance was “not in line with the spirit of friendship and mutual trust”.

Now more than ever Indonesia has the incentive to demonstrate its regional significance, long taken for granted by Australia, and if President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is hesitant to do so, next year’s president most certainly won’t be.