The Sounds of Silence Down Under

The new Australian government has a passion for secrecy.

Australian Pprime Minister Tony Abbott.

Australian Pprime Minister Tony Abbott

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SYDNEY – I traveled to the far side of the world and have run into a distinct sense of political déjà vu. Earlier this month, the politics here were focused on how much to raise the debt ceiling and the prospect of – to borrow the phrase used by the Australian media – a "U.S.-style government shutdown" if the legislative deadlock cannot be broken. It's enough to make a visiting Yank – having been asked more than once if U.S. politics has gone totally bonkers – apologize for our latest unhappy export.

But they're also trying some new things in the land they call Oz, including a novel approach to handling the media pioneered by the newly installed Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his coalition government (Abbott leads the Liberal Party which, down under, represents the center-right to the Labor Party's center-left). Abbott's approach can be summed up thusly: "I am not going to commit to talking unless I've got something to say," he said at his first press conference. "I think that there's been far too much empty talk from people who should know better at senior levels of government over the last few years."

There's something appealing about this idea, especially in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and the permanent campaign. Don't feed the beast, starve it. And the notion holds extra appeal if you're an Australian and have lived through six years of peripatetic, confounding politics under the old Labor government, a span which saw Prime Minister Kevin Rudd thrown over in 2010 with little public explanation given, in favor of his deputy, Julia Gillard, only to have Rudd replace Gillard last summer – all the while trying to win every news cycle. As the conservative Spectator editorialized recently, "The public found themselves on tenterhooks, anxiously wondering each morning what bizarre announcement to expect on the front page or the news bulletin. … Exhausted from six years of hyperactivity, there is genuine relief that politics is no longer a daily drama."

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This seems to be the governing presumption of the Abbott approach. "Abbott thinks that basically snubbing the national political press corps will not do him any harm in the broader community" because of a general public desire to have politics out of the news and because "his opposition is so discredited because of their own internal divisions," says one veteran political reporter.

The most notable way this approach has expressed itself in Australia concerns the country's immigration policy and, specifically, the waves of "boat people," the thousands of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian refugees who try to reach Australia over the seas each month. While the Labor government would release information about boats intercepted on a rolling basis, the Abbott government has clammed up in sometimes gratuitous ways, refusing to divulge details about "on-water matters" on the dubious grounds that such information could abet people-smugglers.

And the weekly press conferences – held in Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's home town of Sydney rather than the Australian capitol of Canberra, where the national press is based – have been contentious and at times bizarre. Asked last month about a woman pregnant with twins being held in detention on Nauru island, Morrison replied that the very suggestion "is simply not true" and lectured the reporters about getting their facts right. Journalists subsequently learned that the woman had been moved from Nauru just a week before the question, prompting another exchange with the minister lamely defending himself to the reporter that on the specific day she had asked the question there was no pregnant woman at the facility. A cartoon on the front page of The Australian recently caught the mood well, showing Morrison being told by an aide that "we've intercepted a group of journalists trying to find out what's going on." ("Were they in a boat?" Morrison asks hopefully.)

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