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Is Australia’s international reputation being hurt abroad by the Australian government’s tight-lipped approach to Operation Sovereign Borders? In an age where most government’s around the world are learning very quickly that any attempt to limit transparency is being met with shame and humiliation, it may be that new Australian government is fast weaving the rope it will hang itself with.
In September 2013, after the election of the Abbott government, the election promise to create a “Military-led border security operation” became a reality. With this came a new policy with regard to how information about activities on Australia’s borders is distributed to the public.
Scott Morrison, the new Australian Immigration Minister spoke on his weekly press briefing shortly after the election win in September 2013.
“This briefing is not about providing shipping news to people smugglers…
… This is an operational briefing of matters that have been cleared for public release. Briefings will not be provided on tactical and operational matters that may compromise current or future operations.”
— Sky News, 23rd September, 2013
Earlier this month he has now indicated that he will no longer hold weekly press briefings to update Australians on conditions surrounding what has been for over a decade now the most consistent and polarizing of electoral issues. Having not held a press conference since before Christmas he told the Australian State-owned media that these will now be held on an “as-needs basis”. A written statement would replace the weekly briefing unless there was something significant to report.
Reducing the publicly released information to printed words and statistical figures has infuriated many Australians that value governmental transparency, particularly on a topic of such a sensitive nature.
Nevertheless, the International and Australian Media have generally found ways to circumvent the deliberate lack of transparency on behalf of the newly elected Abbott government.
Amnesty claimed a raft of Human Rights violations including “Degrading and Inhuman treatment” of which non was more surprising to the public at large than the rationing of insufficient supplies of water. The report states,
“In the largest compound, Oscar, 500 men receive only a dozen bottles of water per day to share between themselves.
This amounts to less than 500ml of water per person per day which is extremely insufficient, especially given the heat and humidity.”
– Amnesty International
Next came a popular Australian website called the Asylum Seeker Resource Center (ASRC)who claim to have direct whistle blower contact with people subjected to detention off Australia’s borders. They released a statement on their popular Facebook page.
“No birth certificates are being issued to parents of babies born in detention. Instead babies just assigned the boat ID number on which their mums arrived. Info comes to us directly from asylum seeker mums in detention.”
This, like many others like it instantly went viral gaining 3445 shares in a short period and alerting millions of individuals to what was an unverified yet disturbing statement. Without the traditional press conference style interrogation of government on this issue Australians still remain lost as to the specifics of this.
In democracy, people get the government they deserve, and it cannot be ignored that the Australian people voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new Abbott government, giving him 90 of the 150 seats available in the house of representatives. So when the government closes the flow of official information it is not surprising that there is a ready stream of informal and damning information becoming available that not only gives us an indication of conditions inside detention and events but also attitudes within the departments and people tasked with administrating the policy.
In early January, the British based paper The Independentreported that a supervisor at the Manus Island detention facility had mocked (along with his fellow employees) a detainee that had swallowed a set of nail clippers on his public Facebook profile.
“One of these jokers just swallowed a pair of nail clippers. RALMFAO (Rolling around laughing my freaking ass off’). A Christmas I shall not easily forget.”
This was followed by further derogatory comments from other guards,
“I want to be his escort to the shitter when he passes them.”
This has been followed by claims by Asylum Seekers that were pushed back to Indonesia that the Australian Navy had used profane language in their encounters. Compounding these allegations is once again derogatory language by Australian Navy Personnel over Social Media. The Sydney Morning Herald published an article stating that the Australian Navy member commented,
‘”I’m about to head out today to deal with these fuckers.”
This was in response to a comment by a friend who the State-owned media claims to be a member of the Anti-Islam Australian Defence League. The original comment was the all to commonly held view in Australia and read,
“More Asylum boaties sank in a boat trying to get here to jump on Centrelink and get free government housing,”
In the absence of the Australian Government making it self available to give regular press briefings, more and more of the information that shapes the view of Australia’s already very questionable immigration stance, is coming from unofficial sources over social media. Shameful as some of these views seem, much of the damage has already been done in the years past to devalue and in fact dehumanize Asylum seekers in the collective language of many Australians.
“First they steal the words, then they steal the meaning.” – George Orwell
With the Australian Parliamentary Library’s research service stating that over time, arrivals on boats have been between 70 and 97% genuine refugees, one can only sit in awe at the success of the collective and very Orwellian example of dehumanizing political language applied to this most fragile group of the international community.
The Abbott government has clearly chosen to step back and allow this to take on a life of its own and as a consequence the Australian and International community are becoming exposed to a combination of sources that paints a picture of Human Rights violations cloaked in secrecy and attitudes that appear unapologetically hostile at both the bureaucratic and people level.
Maybe this was not a mistake, and simply the deliberate policy of a new government more than happy to directly cash in an ever weakening piece of Australia’s international reputation, for an ever more strengthened deterrent effect.
But after 13 years of cashing in, how much is really left….
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