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

Feb 19, 2019

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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