Thursday, November 14, 2013

No Military In Asylum Seeker Communications

No one ever accused the Australian military of being good communicators.   
After a decade do Australians really know what our troops are doing in Afghanistan other than a "good job"?  So why involve them in asylum seeker communications?

The new Coalition Government's media policy on asylum seekers can be summed up in two words "trust me."

That is a big ask given trust in governments is low, and the issue of boat people seeking sanctuary in Australia, is among our longest running and most divisive issues. For the past 12 years. the story of the boats has been front page in our national discourse.

The new Government is intent on removing the issue from the 24/7 news cycles by restricting information to weekly media conferences held jointly with the Australian Defence Force. The results so far are tightly controlled affairs where legitimate questions meet with blunt refusals to answer.

Is this strategy sound?

The military may be in control of our borders, but having them alongside Ministers at these  briefings politicizes their role, particularly when senior commanders work from narrow scripts.  They really say very little and questions are batted away because of "operational security."  Which is a favourite recourse by any government unwilling to tell citizens what it is up to. 

Media and now parliamentary inquiries about on water operations are just not entertained.  Now there is a unique term - on water operations - whatever happened to the simple term at sea.

The presence of a senior soldier at these media conferences is meant to reassure Australians that our borders are under control.  Having uniforms at press conferences is a  long standing practice of politicians who surround themselves in emergency situations with emergency service and police officials. 

It works in times of crisis because people can see an immediate threat.  In this situation it is over-dramatising the situation and over time will tie the military to Australian's most difficult political problem. Is that where we as a community want them?

The media strategy of tightly restricting information on asylum seekers is showing cracks.  Journalists are frustrated, individuals with legitimate interests in the issue are in the dark, and the ADF, while very good at maritime operations, adds little value in communicating this highly contentious issue and winning over the Australian community.

It's time for a rethink by the new Government's media advisers. 

Disclosure: I am a former Director of Public Affairs for the Australian Army

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