Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been subjected to a fiery hearing into the release of documents relating to Operation Sovereign Borders.
(Transcript from World News Austraia Radio)
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been subjected to a fiery hearing into the release of documents relating to the government's controversial asylum boat policy.
A parliamentary committee has been told the Senate has very little precedent to enforce its demand for release of government documents relating to Operation Sovereign Borders.
Scott Morrison is citing a public interest immunity by refusing to table information other than publicly-available transcripts of the operation's weekly briefings and media releases.
Amanda Cavill has the details.
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The Senate committee is examining the government's reliance on public interest immunity to deny the upper house access to official documents relating to its border protection policy.
The inquiry centres on demands from Labor and Greens Senators for more documents about the operational details about the government's Operation Sovereign Borders.
After Immigration Minister Scott Morrison last year refused to provide such details, the crossbenchers and Opposition moved the inquiry saying Mr Morrison was in contempt of the Senate.
While the Senate is usually allowed to demand documents, the government is allowed to argue not to reveal information under public interest immunity.
However the Clerk of the Senate, Rosemary Laing, says the issue of finding a lower house government minister guilty of contempt and imposing penalties which could include a jail term has never been tested in the courts.
Dr Laing says in order for the minister to be found guilty of contempt it would have to be proved there was no public interest involved in the government's refusal to release the documents.
She says there are a number of areas to which public interest immunity could be claimed by the government, including potential damage to international relations and national security.
"The sorts of things you would expect. But none of them is, none of them stands conclusively on it's own as a conclusive rights. All of these areas have to be claimed and explained. in the particular circumstances including an outline of the harm to the public public interest that could ensue from the disclosure of that particular information."
Dr Laing says it is not unusual for a minister to refuse to table documents by making a public interest immunity claim.
Scott Morrison says the government will continue to argue that its refusal to release the documents is in the public interest.
"The government believes that disclosure of such operational information which includes, but is not limited to, 'on water' tactics, traing procedures, operational instruction, specific incident reports, intelligence, posturing and deployment of assets, timing and occurrence of operations, and identification of individual attempted voyagers would prejudice current and future operations, it would put people at risk who are involved in our operations and unnecessarily cause damage to Australia's national security, defence and international relations."
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says she believes that Scott Morrison is deliberately covering up information for his own political ends.
She says finding a minister guilty of contempt and imposing penalties will be a long process but the Greens will continue to press try to force the government to release the documents or face the consequences.
"Claims made by the government to keep information from the public. To keep the public in the dark must be tested. If the Senate finds the minister's refusal to be up front with the Australian people and be up front with the parliament we may find the minister in contempt. If that happens and the consequences of that will need to be left for a decision of the Senate. This is a very very serious undertaking."
The commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, General Angus Campbell, says he believes public interest immunity is relevant in this case.
General Campbell says the information being sought by the Senate could cause harm to Australian military personnel, and also help people smugglers to ply their trade.
"Keeping in mind our people at sea I would prefer that there isn't anything that's made public that could in any way make their job more difficult or more dangerous. I acknowledge the information sought. Is the sort of information I seek to keep out of the public domain and out of the hands of those who would use it against us. The documents requested related to operational matters and I believe should not be disclosed, but go to the heart of the minister's claim."
Mr Morrison says he has offered both the opposition and the Greens regular, confidential briefings about Operation Sovereign Borders and its progress but the offers have been declined.
The Senate committee will hand down its findings at the end of February.