Comment: On hush puppies and dogs of war

RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornets conduct mid air refuelling from a RAAF KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport en route to the Middle East Region. (AAP)

On one hand we can't get the government to talk about operational matters, but on the other it looks like we can't get them to stop.

This week came news that Canberra was named by the OECD as the best region in the world to live.

Now, as a resident of Canberra I have no qualms with such a statement, mostly because like the OECD, I’m probably an old fuddy-duddy economist type. But as with all things, whether it be surveys or statements about operational matters, it’s all about context.

The OECD measured regions according to education, jobs, income safety, health, environment, civic engagement, accessibility to services and housing. Now, those are all fine categories and certainly they matter in life, but they do smack a little bit of believing we are all rational human beings who like J Alfred Prufrock “have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons” and have measured out our life “with coffee spoons”.

It’s a dull list of categories that calculates pretty much everything important in life except that which makes it worth living. Sure, having a high voter turnout might be important on a global scale – because low voter turnout in some countries is a good indicator of corruption and a sense that voters are unimportant – but it is hardly something most of us are going to care too much about when it comes to choosing where to live.

“In that one tweet we had more information about what Australian forces are doing within a war zone than we did for about 10 months of operations done by Australian forces in the sea within our borders.”

But as a Canberra fan, I say yes they might have missed some worthwhile categories, but damn you, the coffee here isn’t that bad!

Context is important for governments and the military as well.

In January this year, when responding to questions about “Operation Sovereign Borders”, Scott Morrison told the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee that releasing specific information about “individual operations” would “put people at risk who are involved in our operations and unnecessarily cause damage to Australia’s national security, defence and international relations”. 

Earlier that month Tony Abbott had justified the secrecy by comparing the operation against people smugglers as akin to war time and that “If we were at war we wouldn’t be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves”.

So, it was rather odd this week to see on Twitter – that bastion of the idly curious – a tweet by Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, the Chief of the Defence force which noted that “2 F/A-18F completed 1st armed combat mission in Iraq. No munitions expended. Returned safely to base.”

“Now, I don’t suggest this information will jeopardise the safety of our air crews, but it does highlight that the reason for not giving out information regarding asylum seeker interactions was complete sham. The justification would be as ludicrous as saying the Defence Department shouldn’t tell us about why the planes turned back because now terrorists know to move in urban areas to avoid being bombed.”

In that one tweet we had more information about what Australian forces are doing within a war zone than we did for about 10 months of operations done by Australian forces in the sea within our borders.

You might think the tweet was pretty non-descript, but then on Wednesday the Chief of Joint Operations Vice-Admiral David Johnston provided the media with rather specific details of action involving Australian combat operations. He explained that the planes had “an identified target which it was tracking and that target moved into an urban area where the risks of conducting a strike on that target increased to a point where it exceeded our expectations of the collateral damage.”

Then on Thursday morning, the Defence Department alerted the media that “Overnight the Australian Air Task Group operating in the Middle East attacked its first target in Iraq. Two bombs were dropped from an F/A-18F Super Hornet on to an ISIL facility.”

Now, I don’t suggest this information will jeopardise the safety of our air crews, but it does highlight that the reason for not giving out information regarding asylum seeker interactions was complete sham. The justification would be as ludicrous as saying the Defence Department shouldn’t tell us about why the planes turned back because now terrorists know to move in urban areas to avoid being bombed.

When governments choose to withhold information it may be for security reasons, it may even be to safeguard our armed forces and the lives of Australian civilians. But the actions of the government this year in relation to two different military events shows that what they choose to allow the public to know, can often be more about politics than security.

Given both the Liberal-National Party and the ALP have voted to make it an offence punishable by 5 years in jail to disclose information relating to “a special intelligence operation”, we should be rather sceptical that the new law is designed to protect people. It, like all laws which seek to keep secret, protect those in power.

It doesn’t mean we will never hear about national security operations, but just as with the specific details of military operations, we will only hear of ones where the context is that the government thinks it is in the public interest that the information is known. Except, when the government has legal control over information, “public interest” usually means “in the government’s interest”.

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

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