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February 27, 2021

On the front line in the coalition’s war on scrutiny

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ALP senator Stephen Conroy during senate estimates. Photo AAP
ALP senator Stephen Conroy during senate estimates. Photo AAP

Bernard Keane, Crikey politics editor

You could fault opposition defence spokesman Stephen Conroy’s taste in movies, but not his choice of words in describing Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, head of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, as participating in a ‘political cover-up’ in his refusal to share information about the policy he oversees.

That policy includes the process of towing back – however you want to define it – asylum-seeker boats to Indonesia, during which our vessels repeatedly entered Indonesia’s territorial waters, censorship of media attempts even to cover Campbell’s activities and indefinitely detaining those who have reached Australia on Nauru and Manus Island. It was on the latter, of course, that one was killed and many others injured last week by either the security officials meant to be guarding them, PNG police or local Manus Islanders allowed into the detention centre.

Who exactly killed Reza Berati we don’t know, and we aren’t likely to know for quite some time as the PNG investigating authorities move languidly into action. More than a week after Berati’s death, no autopsy has been performed; instead the body has been under guard by the same security company that might have played a role in his death.

Campbell’s no Colonel Jessup, invoked by Conroy in a reference to A Few Good Men, because Campbell is now a bureaucrat. It pays to read the transcript, because part of it is a process whereby Conroy – who is now a veteran shit-stirrer from both sides of the table in Senate committees – asks Campbell to explain exactly the nature of his role: is it military or is it civilian? Campbell seemed to say that when he’s directing non-military activities, he’s not military – that makes him a civilian, presumably – and only when he’s directing military activities is acting as a military officer, but he agreed that Operation Sovereign Borders was not a military operation but a ‘joint agency taskforce’.

So the coalition’s outrage about Conroy’s decidedly anodyne description of Campbell participating in a ‘political cover-up’ – to which Campbell professed to take great offence and at which point the hearing was simply shut down by the chair – is even stranger given Campbell’s role. This is the coalition that routinely attacked then-treasury secretary Ken Henry as a partisan figure, but then feigns high dudgeon at the Martyrdom of St Angus. Perhaps the government thinks that, because of his military status, Campbell should be immune from criticism or scrutiny, which would be handy – the government could put military officers in charge of every portfolio and let all that well-polished brass deflect efforts to shine a light into the workings of government.

Like the Rudd government did with Henry, the Abbott government is exploiting Campbell as a kind of shield around their policies. But the point of the Henry shield was cover from political attacks on the Rudd government’s response to the financial crisis. The point of the Campbell shield is to manufacture the impression of a military operation (against, as Conroy noted, unarmed people in wooden boats) even when Campbell admits it isn’t, and to use that impression as an excuse to hide information.

There’s not a little justice, however, in Labor’s frustration at the extent to which the coalition hides behind national security. Labor did precisely the same thing, routinely and blithely brushing aside attempts to scrutinise Australia’s national security establishment. One of the key figures in that hostility to scrutiny is Roger Wilkins, the smirk permanently hovering above a bow-tie, who heads the attorney-general’s department. The department’s poor record for even doing the basics under Wilkins has been repeatedly noted by Crikey, and he made another solid addition to it this week.

On Monday morning – under questioning from Labor senators Joe Ludwig and Kim Carr in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee – both Wilkins and attorney-general George Brandis were at pains to explain that no cabinet documents from Labor’s time in government had been handed to the pink batts royal commission, although Brandis explained in detail the process that would apply if such documents were sought. Brandis explained:

‘The way in which I envisage this would work is that in the event a summons were received by another department or emanation of the government which would properly raise considerations of public interest immunity, then my advice would be sought.’

Wilkins was similarly forthright. Asked if any documents had been provided, he said: ‘Not from us’.

Well, like a Scott Morrison asylum-seeker yarn, that didn’t take too long to unravel. Around 3.30 that afternoon, Labor senator John Faulkner in another committee obtained from Prime Minister and Cabinet officials that not only had a summons from the royal commission been received by PM&C in January, but that it had provided 4,500 documents and ‘less than a lever arch folder’ of cabinet documents on January 31. Provided to whom?

‘Documents were provided by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to attorney-general’s department, who are co-ordinating compliance, in conjunction with the Australian government solicitor, on the 31st.’

Attorney-general’s would hand the material to AGS, which would then hand it to the commission. Whether Brandis had been asked for advice, as he had ‘envisaged’, wasn’t clear. Presumably not.

So, had AGD given the material to the Australian government solicitor for handing to the commission? Back to Legal and Constitutional, where at 5.30 Wilkins found himself in the now-customary position of having to explain his previous evidence. Yes, the material had been given to AGS, which had handed it to the royal commission. Wilkins then denied he’d ever said ‘not from us’. Comparing the Hansard for the morning and afternoon sessions enables us to check:

crikey-hansard excerpt



It turns out, when Wilkins said ‘not from us’, what he really meant was that the department itself had not been summonsed to provide documents, even though it had provided documents sent by other departments – an explanation Brandis felt obliged to make about Wilkins’s answer, ‘not to derogate from it but to clarify it and expand a little on it’.

It would be tempting to accuse Wilkins of a ‘political cover-up’ as well, except that, like many of his efforts to avoid scrutiny in his appearances before committees, it was more like half-smart casuistry that ended up looking worse than the original matter he was trying to deflect attention from.

Wilkins was at home under Labor; he’s even more at home under the Abbott government, which regards scrutiny as an outrage and which uses any excuse to hide any information it can. Perhaps he should don a military uniform, too.

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