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A case study in truth and politics.

By Clare O'Neil

Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that ‘the trouble with lying and deceiving is that their efficiency depends entirely upon a clear notion of the truth that the liar and deceiver wishes to hide’. How apt it is that Arendt was a refugee, given that her words on lies, secrecy, and politics ring absolutely true and clear in the current context of Australian asylum seeker policy.

Asylum seeker policy and the divisive nature of this policy has been a feature of Australia’s political landscape for quite some time. But what has struck many as particularly galling of late has been the secrecy practiced by this government.

The Orwellian evocation of Operation Sovereign Borders as a name for a policy measure is extended into the communication strategy, with the Minister arrogantly refusing to supply information, instead relying on a defence of a protocol (that he invented) in order to continue to deny Australians the truth.

This is not, though, a conversation about asylum seeker policy. This is a conversation about truth’s place in politics, its centrality to democracy, and how the power to silence and obscure can damage the quality of our democracy and our human rights.

Questions of power and knowledge are not new; thinkers from Plato to Kant, from Hobbes to de Beauvoir, have all interpreted this relationship across history. While these thinkers may have approached the relationship between power and knowledge differently, it remains the case that there is a relationship between power and knowledge, and Operation Sovereign Borders shows us why this relationship is so important to modern politics.

The modus operandi of Operation Sovereign Borders is to defend: defend against boats and defend against scrutiny. It is there in the name: Sovereign Borders. The distinction between outside and inside is both the purpose of the operation, as well as its mechanism. It keeps out boats (we are told) and it keeps out truth as the means to keep out the boats.

Slippery-slope arguments should be exercised with caution, but it is clear that once our expectation for truth in our government is eroded, the system fails.

There are a number of texts that members of parliament acquaint themselves with to understand how Australian democracy should function. The House Practice is one of these texts. It is a large volume, but full of helpful insights and essential reading. The House Practice reads:

It is fundamental in the concept of responsible government that the Executive Government be accountable to the House.

The capacity of the House of Representatives to call the Government to account depends, in large measure, on its knowledge and understanding of the Government’s policies and activities. Questions…play an important part in this quest for information.

There are many fora where one can ask questions in Parliament, but perhaps the best known space is in the middle of the day, when the House meets for ‘Questions Without Notice’, better known simply as ‘Question Time’.

Over the past few months of the Abbott Government, this space has been exhausted in an attempt to extract (even basic) information from Minister Scott Morrison. Questions about how many boats have been tugged back to Indonesia and how much his operation is costing Australians have been ignored – there have certainly been no direct answers. Clearly, this obfuscation compromises the capacity for good governance to happen, as laid out in The House Practice. While it is accepted by virtually all that Question Time is often a place of political rough-and-tumble, it should never witness defiant arrogance and the wilful denial of information.

The power of truth in a political setting and its importance to human rights is something we need to remember. When people disappeared and information was withheld by the governments in places such as Yugoslavia and El Salvador, truth commissions were instituted in the aftermath to help people in their grief to make sense of the secrecy and the pain that those in power inflicted. While the Abbott Government are certainly not practicing atrocities on this scale, to quote Malcolm Fraser, ‘secrecy is completely inadequate for democracy but totally appropriate for tyranny’.

Human rights tragedies are almost always accompanied by the government denying information to its citizens. In Australia, we have had no revolution, no civil war, no Arab Spring, to create our democracy. It has evolved. But that does not mean we can take it for granted. It is up to all Australians to protect our democracy. And that means demanding the truth.

Over the last few years, we have seen a number of Royal Commissions or investigations into human rights abuses, such as the stolen generation, forced adoptions, and the abuse of children by institutions.

If we could go back in time and prevent these events from occurring, we would do it. As Australians, we face an opportunity to prevent the future Royal Commission into Operation Sovereign Borders. But to do it, we need know the truth.

To return to Hannah Arendt: ‘truth, even if it does not prevail in public, possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods’. These are wise words to reflect on. The truth will one day emerge, hopefully in time to prevent any further abuses of human rights committed in secrecy in our name, and to prevent a culture of obfuscation becoming status quo in Australian politics.

Clare O’Neil MP
Member for Hotham

Clare is a passionate advocate for her community. She holds a double degree from Monash University and has also attended Harvard University as a Fulbright Scholar, where she graduated with a Master of Public Policy. She is a former Mayor of the City of Greater Dandenong and was the youngest female mayor in Australian history.