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Border protection transparency under Abbott

  • 11 September 2013

We will see under the Abbott Government a tougher philosophy and administration of Australia's policing of its northern maritime borders against unauthorised boat people. It cannot be assumed numbers of arrivals will quickly fall to zero, though they are already trending downwards since Kevin Rudd announced in July that all irregular maritime arrivals will be processed in PNG or Nauru and resettled offshore.

The Coalition pledged during the campaign to maintain that policy, and to augment it with new tough measures of deterrence at the borders.

In our northern maritime approaches, the new Government faces three policy challenges: to maintain maritime border protection and rescue-at-sea systems that are transparent and publicly accountable; to restore clarity to an Australian maritime rescue response system whose understanding of its responsibilities has been clouded by the pressures of the past four years; and to try to turn boats back to Indonesia without loss of life at sea.

There has been some public discussion of the third challenge, which is essentially operational. But the first and second are even more important, because they go to the heart of Australian values as a successful multicultural country of immigration that respects human rights.

One of Labor's humanitarian achievements was to establish a system of routine media releases announcing every boat interception and every incident of assistance to boats in difficulty at sea. The public thus had access to reasonably prompt and accurate numbers of arrivals and deaths at sea. Major fatal incidents at sea were reported in ministerial media briefings. They have been subject to routine internal Customs and Border Protection departmental reviews. There have, commendably, been four public coronial inquests.

It would be tragic if under Operation Sovereign Borders, as foreshadowed by Scott Morrison, the present degree of public transparency and accountability for deaths in border protection operations were to be abandoned on the spurious pretext (as happened under Operation Relex in 2001) that these are matters of national security that cannot be disclosed. It was a lesson from Operation Relex that any attempt to hide border security operations in which unacceptable risks were taken with human life, or in which deaths at sea occurred, will inevitably leak out. A civilised country should not fear submitting its border protection practices and outcomes to regular public reporting.

The second challenge is equally important. In the last four years, while up to 50,000 boat people have safely reached Australia, around 1100 people have died