Comment: Never mind the bad Manus, let's just talk about hurt feelings

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders Lieutenant General Angus Campbell at a media conference at Parliament House. (AAP)

Against the backdrop of the death of asylum seeker Reza Berati and the question marking hanging over the activities of Fiona Nash, this week parliament chose to focus on who upset who.

Senate estimates weeks are always a good time to turn away from the juvenilia of Question Time. This week the events in the Senate committee rooms certainly took centre stage.

Initially, it seemed the focus of the week would be on the Assistant Health Minister, Senator Fiona Nash, and her knowledge of the alleged conflict of interests of her former Chief of Staff, Alastair Furnival.

Any attention this might have received was largely put aside as soon as Senator Stephen Conroy on Tuesday accused Lt Gen. Angus Campbell of being “engaged in a political cover-up”.

The accusation occurred in the midst of a hearing in which the level of opaqueness from those answering questions about “Operation Sovereign Borders” reached high farce. Specifically, the accusation came in response to Lt Gen. Campbell suggesting that one of the reasons for the secrecy around the operation was “the management of bilateral and regional relationships and their sensitivities”.

Senator Conroy, not unreasonably, asked why was “being sensitive to other nations a matter of national security?” In essence, Lt Gen. Campbell was saying one of the reasons why information about the operation was secret was because things being done might upset the Indonesian government.

The General replied that “the question is of potentially real damage to international relationships.”

After a bit of dopey quoting of A Few Good Men by Senator Conroy, the exchange ended thus:

Senator Conroy: Seriously, you can’t tell the Australian public the truth because you might upset an international neighbour? That’s called a political cover-up.

Lt Gen. Campbell: Senator, I feel I have explained the process of my decisions.

Senator Conroy: You are engaged in a political cover-up.

Lt Gen. Campbell then, after numerous government senators expressed their outrage, stated that he wanted it on record that he took “extreme offence at that statement”.

At this point the government senators shut down the committee, threatening to prevent Senator Conroy from asking any further questions. To keep things going, Senator Conroy withdrew his remarks, and on the committee went.

The context is interesting because the response by the members of the government was that Senator Conroy had dared to criticise a member of the military. Yet part of the discussion during the hearing was to work out whether the General is acting in a military capacity.

Senator Conroy himself attempted to discover this a few minutes after the “cover-up” exchange. He asked the General whether he was leading the operation “in a civilian position” or “in a military position”?

The General answered (and I quote in full):

Where I am dealing with civil agencies, I am working to coordinate and direct a coherent effect across multiple agencies. Where I am working with military organisations, in the direction of those entities I seek the concurrence of the Chief of the Defence Force, and, then, within that broad framework, may direct them as a military officer. So it is as required whether I am expressing a military command effect or a coordinating civil agency, interagency, effect.

In short: it depends.

Other such Humphrey Appleby-esque responses occurred when for example ALP senators asked about the lifeboats that were purchased by the government and used to send asylum seekers back to Indonesia.

Senator Carr asked the General what arrangements had been made for the return of lifeboats that wash up on the shores of Indonesia. He answered, “As you are aware, that falls under the minister’s claim for public interest immunity ... In regard to the point that it deals with operational on-water matters.”

Upon being told that the lifeboats were considered to be a “consumable”, Senator Carr asked if this meant they were considered disposable. The CEO of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, Mike Pezzullo, answered that he was “not in a position to accept the premise of the question that the lifeboats that we have purchased have been employed in any particular matter that would see them washing up on any particular shore”.

So while we have all seen the photos of the lifeboats abandoned on the Indonesian shore, and we know they cost $2.5 million, neither Mr Pezzullo nor Lt Gen. Campbell would admit that they were our lifeboats, and neither were they disposed of on the shore.

Presumably both would admit that Indonesian coast does exist but I fear that might even be considered an operational matter at this point.

While Senator Conroy overstepped the mark with an accusation of political cover-up, there is no denying Lt Gen. Campbell’s role is very political. This was made abundantly clear when he began attending the weekly Friday briefings with Scott Morrison last year, to act as his foil and to give the whole business a military smell.

His presence enabled Morrison to suggest it wasn’t his choice to keep things secret but the military’s - and of course we must not question their judgement on such matters.  

Lt Gen. Campbell also has not been above indulging in political theatrics such as on 13 December when he asked Morrison a clearly pre-arranged question:

Angus Campbell: Minister, is the government considering now or in the future a change to Australia's border security policies regarding illegal maritime arrivals?

Scott Morrison: Absolutely not. The government would only be strengthening policies, General.

Public servants may in the past have been accused of bias but I’ve never known one before to ask a government minister a Dorothy Dixer in a press conference.

All of this was irrelevant once Senator Conroy made his accusation. From then on it was open season for the government and the right-wing media to go full-indignation over his remarks.

Whether or not Senator Conroy was wrong is largely irrelevant; he was politically wrong. His remarks lost the politics of the week for the ALP because they gave the government a political stick with which to bash the ALP.

And bash they did.

Whether or not the information should be kept secret, whether or not the management of the operation had any role in the murder of Reza Barati, whether or not even if the money spent on the lifeboats was value for money? All gone. The story was now all about Conroy and if he should be disciplined by Bill Shorten.

Gone for the moment, as well, was pressure on Tony Abbott regarding Senator Nash.

Politics requires never giving the other side a break, Senator Conroy did, and that was his biggest failure.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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