MICHAEL KEATING. National Security: How Professional is the Advice?

Prime Minister Morrison and Minister Dutton have launched a scare campaign over the Medivac Bill, alleging that 1000 refugees will arrive in Australia from Manus and Nauru in a matter of weeks, which will in turn start the boats coming again. In an effort to gain some credibility for this claim, the Government has cited the Security Agencies in support.

In this article I consider the capacity of the Security Agencies to make such judgements, and their professionalism in allowing themselves to be used in this way.

Public service advice to any government needs to strike the right balance between being responsive to the values, objectives and priorities of that particular government on the one hand and maintaining the independence and trust in the integrity of the public service on the other hand.

Achieving the right balance is not always easy. Prior to the implementation of the Reforms in the 1980s, which were promoted by the Coombs Royal Commission into public administration, many considered that public servants were too often insufficiently responsive to the needs of their customers, including politicians. Indeed, I can recall instances where public servants thought they had a public duty to resist what they considered to be the populist impulses of elected politicians. And I know that ministers from both sides of politics, who remembered the former public service culture, welcomed the shift to a more responsive public service in the 1980s.

But the risk is that a too responsive public service will sacrifice its integrity and/or its independence. Maintaining these core values requires the public service to base its advice as much as possible on evidence. And where there is no or insufficient evidence, and the advice necessarily relies more on conjecture, then that conjecture must be based on reasonable assumptions that are clearly stated, and logical analysis.

When viewed against these criteria, what are we to make of the advice allegedly given by the Security Agencies regarding the risks of admitting refugees from Manus Island and Nauru who are assessed by two doctors as needing medical attention in Australia? According to Minister Dutton:

‘the advice from the Director-General of ASIO, from the Chief of the Defence Force, from the head of Operation Sovereign Borders, [and] from the Australian Government Solicitor in relation to this bill … has been consistent; that is, our people having looked at the bill, believe that in a matter of weeks, everybody on Nauru and Manus – essentially regardless of their medical condition – would be in Australia.’ (Source: transcript of interview with Ray Hadley, 7 February, 2019).

Reading from the available material that has been released, no evidence is cited in support of this conclusion, nor do I think that there is any such evidence. Accordingly, the finding by our security chiefs that the Medivac Bill will lead to our borders being overwhelmed, seems to have been based on a conjecture that doctors cannot be trusted. But what is there in the security chiefs professional training or knowledge-base that allows them with any authority to arrive at such a conjecture? Instead, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this accusation by the security chiefs must have been a lapse in their professionalism, possibly because, for reasons that we can only speculate about, these people are presently too willing to please.

But in that case, this lapse of professionalism is the real threat to our democracy. Furthermore, it bodes ill for the Security Chiefs’ capacity to serve an alternative government with integrity. On the other hand, if they think their advice has been misrepresented then they should have insisted by now that Dutton and Morrison withdraw the remarks that have been attributed to them.

For more than 10 years, from early 1986 to late 1996, Michael Keating, AC, was a member of the most senior officials committee charged with oversighting the work of the intelligence and security agencies and coordinating all advice on national security. Also, he was Chairman of this committee for 5 years, and secretary of the Cabinet Committee on National Security from 1991 to 1996.

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6 Responses to MICHAEL KEATING. National Security: How Professional is the Advice?

  1. Max Bourke AM says:

    As it turns out, with a few days since the claims made by Dutton, the Agencies either did not make such statements or they were grossly misrepresented by Dutton. Personally I would be inclined, on his past form to think that Dutton as once again spoken absolute BS!

  2. Richard Ure says:

    If you work for these agencies to co-operate in administering the current government’s cruelties, you have already sold your soul.

  3. Ralph Curnow says:

    I think another key point is the complete distrust of the doctors’ professionalism – whose professional opinion do you respect?

    CASSIDY: Why would the panel automatically agree with the two doctors? I don’t see why they would simply rubber stamp it? They would have a look at it themselves?

    PORTER: Of course they will. But time will tell and our assumption is, and I think it is a fair assumption, that doctors will tend to agree with other doctors .And of course, these are matters of some subjectivity.

    So, in the final analysis, the lawyers know best?

  4. Stephen Saunders says:

    While I haven’t always agreed with MSK, I never doubted his integrity, as an agency head. Under this government, we’ve had a conga line of agency chiefs offering startling ‘advices’ for which the kindest description is unctuous. Pezzullo, Campbell, Pratt, Fraser, Lloyd, Lowe are just a few names that come to mind.

    I fear that the low place where we are now (thanks as usual to John Howard) is the new normal, and will continue under Labor.

  5. Kevin Bain says:

    I haven’t seen the Australian article of Feb 7, but from today’s Guardian, ASIO head Duncan Lewis seems to be belatedly pushing back against accusations of partisanship and transferring the blame to the Border Force dept. (Jack Waterford, take a bow for your 16 Feb Canberra Times article, posted here on 18 Feb.)

    Mr Keating seems to give more credence to Dutton’s representation of what ASIO and others said behind closed doors, including that reps from 4 agencies were consistent in saying that: ‘in a matter of weeks, everybody on Nauru and Manus – essentially regardless of their medical condition – would be in Australia.’ Such concurrence sounds very unlikely, and Dutton needs to be held to account on it. Will a nervous Labor do so? Probably not, so it’s now up to the media.

    Meanwhile the head of that dept. Mr Pezzullo takes it on himself to go to defend the Australian’s presentation of the story and go to bat for Simon Benson, a “senior and distinguished writer” who is “very careful on how he sources information”. On this performance, can these two men be trusted?

  6. Evan Hadkins says:

    I think this slightly misses the point.

    Even if all the asylum seekers are ill and come to Aus for treatment; how will this start a flood of asylum seekers. This seems to be what the advice would be about. I don’t see how people getting medical treatment while their time in detention is not altered would trigger more people to seek asylum here.

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