Coalition just following orders on boat secrecy

The Australian
December 02, 2013 12:00AM

THE government's excessive secrecy over its border-protection operations was demanded by military commanders who advised the Coalition against releasing any operational information and even suggested rationing media briefings to fewer than those already being provided.

Rear Admiral David Johnston, the head of Border Protection Command, stipulated on the Monday after the September 7 election that the timing and release of any information about asylum-seeker boats "must not prejudice the successful achievement of active operations".

"The contents of any release must not include any information that might reveal asset capabilities, posture, tactics that could prejudice future operations," he advised in an email.

Just over a week later, a "transitional media handling strategy" briefing note said the reporting of asylum-seeker boat arrivals would be an operational decision for the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders and suggested "initial indications are such briefings may be held fortnightly".

OSB was set up as a maritime security operation, not an immigration program, the correspondence obtained by The Australian reveals, with military commanders insisting on greater "operational security".

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been accused of arrogance for holding only weekly updates on the operations of the government's military-style border-protection taskforce to "stop the boats" and for censoring the details he provides the public through the media.

The criticism of Mr Morrison's handling of the briefings has overshadowed the government's ability to convey its message that it is curbing the people-smuggling trade, and has also fed in to wider questions about Tony Abbott's media management.

"The documents released clearly show that the communications protocols for Operation Sovereign Borders were devised by those running the operation, with most of the detail settled before ministers even had their feet under their desks," Mr Morrison told The Australian.

"It's time for the conspiracy theorists on OSB to come down off the grassy knoll and acknowledge the success the operation is having to date, with an 80 per cent fall in illegal arrivals by boat.

"At the end of the day, this is what matters. I respect the operational judgment of those officers we employ to protect our borders. The protocols are in place for strong operational reasons and will remain in place for those reasons. In opposition, we promised to let those with day-to-day responsibility for the safety and success of these operations decide what was the best way to handle information.

"That is what we have done."

Labor and the Greens have strenuously attacked Mr Morrison over how much information he has released on boat arrivals, saying that the government was guilty of a "culture of secrecy".

The documents also show it was suggested that the government hold fortnightly briefings on its operations, instead of the weekly media briefings which are currently held by Mr Morrison.

Customs chief executive Michael Pezzullo sent an email on September 18 to Rear Admiral Johnston and others advising: "Cease and desist forthwith the issuance of SIEV (suspected irregular entry vessels) arrival media releases.

"The minister and I are in discussion about a different public communication model, noting that OSB will be a maritime security operation and not an immigration program".

The Prime Minister yesterday dismissed suggestions that the government needed to recalibrate its media strategy.

"Our approach is always the same. When we've got something to say, we say it," Mr Abbott told the Ten Network's The Bolt Report.

"When we don't have anything to say, well, a dignified silence is best. In the end, this government will be judged not on tomorrow's headline, but on whether we have competently implemented our commitments and intelligently responded to the developments of the day, and I'm happy to be judged on that basis."


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