Scott Morrison’s addiction to secrecy has been embraced by Defence Minister Richard Marles, and extends to an entire new industry spawned by AUKUS
While it’s a comforting thought that progress moves in a straight line, a recent ABC series on the Vietnam War is a bracing reminder of how wrong that is and of how little has changed on fundamentals like government secrecy.
A new generation has come to learn of the mighty Sir Robert Menzies and the deals he made as Australia’s prime minister to curry favour with the United States. Judging that Australia needed a powerful friend in the world given the ebbing power of the United Kingdom, Menzies found a means for Australia to be invited to send troops to fight alongside US forces in South Vietnam.
Australia’s commitment was sealed in a meeting of a cabinet sub-committee which took all of five minutes to ratify Menzies’ decision to send 800 troops to Vietnam.
The narrative of the day had it that communism would sweep down from the north, through Asia all the way to Australia, like dominoes falling in its path.
Earlier in his marathon term, Menzies had secretly agreed to allow Britain to conduct atomic tests in Maralinga, South Australia. He took this step without reference to his cabinet. Later he tried to do a secret deal one-to-one with British prime minister Harold Macmillan for the UK to help Australia develop a nuclear capability.
Menzies’ secrets and deals with the great Anglo powers made in the name of protecting Australia resonated 60 years on when Scott Morrison sprung his own surprise on Australia in the form of the AUKUS nuclear submarine and weapons deal which he had secretly concocted with the UK and the US. Like Menzies, Morrison had a special relationship with a British prime minister. In this case it was Boris Johnson.
It is still remarkable to see the extent to which a prime minister – a deeply flawed one at that – was able to sidestep the machinery of government accountability with its multitude of checks and balances to fundamentally change Australia. AUKUS may well be the scandal of the century, delivering a windfall to defence manufacturers and an army of consultants, agents and influence brokers with no real benefit to Australia’s defence. We just don’t know.
What we do know is that Scott Morrison, as prime minister, had a disdain for the processes of good government. This was complemented by his addiction to secrecy – a drug that he injected deep into the veins of the body politic.
Here it has worked as a fix for Defence Minister Richard Marles who has embraced secrecy like a security blanket, covering his millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded flights and even the identity of his golfing partner at an exclusive United States club.
Marles is not alone. While getting stuck into robodebt and Morrison’s bizarre lunge to secretly grab five ministries, Anthony Albanese elected to go along with Morrison’s secret hijacking of Australia’s defence and nuclear policy.
The secrecy extends to a new industry spawned by AUKUS. You may not have heard about the AUKUS briefings that have sprung up around Australia. Certainly you won’t have heard about what was said in them. They operate on Chatham House rules.
One example is a so-called “masterclass” series offered last month by the University of Western Australia’s Defence and Security Institute. For $2,000 (the sum paid by one person who attended) participants were able to hear about the impact and “opportunities” of AUKUS from serving Australian admirals, senior public servants and academics working in nuclear-related subjects. There was a swag of current and former politicians from both sides of the house. These included (as advertised) the former ALP leader Kim Beazley and the former Liberal defence minister David Johnston. Crikey is indebted to University of Technology Sydney professor Mark Beeson for pointing us to the list of speakers as well as his take on the event.
“Suffice to say there was much talk about ‘great national objectives’ and ‘making the nation proud’,” reports Beeson, battling under the constraints of confidentiality.
What we can freely divine though is that AUKUS is producing a new fusion of defence, business and academic interests. This is a significant new alliance that is forming behind closed doors – unremarked and off limits because, apparently, it is in the national interest.
So where is the media?
The extreme secrecy surrounding AUKUS has made it a very difficult story to tell. There are other factors too. In what appears to be a policy directed from the top, the Defence Department never responds in any meaningful way to media inquiries.
The information sausage works like this: as a journalist you send an email with your questions. The department will then respond via email, typically avoiding the question you asked and instead giving you the message they would like to have out there. There is no comeback to this and not a word is exchanged. It is, of course, the opposite of accountability – which is how Defence likes it.
This shows no sign of change, least of all from the defence minister’s office.
Yet none of this accounts for a failure by the general media to undertake any critical reporting of even the most basic claims.
Does AUKUS really mean 20,000 well-paid union jobs as Anthony Albanese claims, most recently at the ALP national conference?
Canberra-based defence commentator Kym Bergmann, editor of online publication Australian Pacific Defence Reporter, has picked apart the 20,000 jobs claim in a way one might hope to see from someone with a national by-line.
Bergmann says UK shipbuilder BAE Systems, which runs several major projects at once, employs a total of 10,000 people. “How we’ve come up with this figure of 20,000 … is beyond me. It is a made-up number.”
It is part and parcel of what Bergmann calls the “cult of magical thinking” of AUKUS. Confronted with fundamental questions for which there is no clear answer, “the members of the cult indicate it’s not an issue”, he says.
Bergmann is one of a handful in the media who has broken ranks on AUKUS. Crikey has also done its level best to get behind the curtain of secrecy and vested interests, while bigger media players remain determined to act as a cheer squad – and indeed become part of those vested interests.
But that is why Crikey exists, if you ask me.
A personal note
Crikey has regularly made a habit of going where other media outlets have been reluctant to tread.
Crikey was the first outlet to call out Scott Morrison as a liar. Crikey was also the first to dig into the thorny question of the links between Morrison’s religious beliefs and his performance as PM.
It appears that for other media outlets these questions were out of bounds. Too delicate. Impolite even.
Yet Crikey was right to break with the conventions of political reporting which say you can’t call a prime minister a liar and that religion is personal. We were right to do so because there was nothing conventional about Morrison – as became readily apparent to everyone in the wake of his secret ministries scandal.
I have played my own role in this reporting over the years, working with a brave and smart editorial team and the sharpest legal minds in the business.
This is my last post as a Crikey reporter, though I hope to make the occasional contribution – particularly to unravel the secrets of AUKUS.
Source: Morrison’s secrecy has been injected deep into the veins of the body politic – Scott Morrison’s addiction to secrecy has been embraced by Defence Minister Richard Marles, and extends to an entire new industry spawned by AUKUS