Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Toxic politics endure as Morrison gets nosy with the Navy

  • 19 February 2014

If Australia ever gets over its obsession with deterring asylum seekers who arrive by boat, will anything linger from the toxic politics that entangle the issue?

The question may seem premature, since there is no indication that popular hostility to boat arrivals is likely to change anytime soon. If anything, attitudes are hardening: in a national poll last month by UMR Research, 59 per cent of respondents believed most boat arrivals were not genuine refugees and 60 per cent wanted the Abbott Government to 'increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers'.

Just what would be 'more severe' than using military force to intercept and turn back boats, while subjecting previous arrivals to punitive detention in offshore concentration camps, is not clear. But where the majority of voters stand is very clear indeed.

The reason for asking the question, however, is that the military 'solution' the Abbott Government has devised to deal with boat arrivals has implications that go beyond the continuing inability of so many Australians to see these arrivals as a humanitarian issue rather than as a threat to border security.

Operation Sovereign Borders, the Government's chosen instrument for deterring the boats, amounts to an unprecedented militarisation of this country's democratic politics. And the longer it continues, the greater the danger that voters will come to accept such military solutions as normal, and the more tempted politicians may be to resort to them in other circumstances.

There has always been cooperation between the Defence Force and other government agencies, of course, and it has never been limited to natural disasters and other emergencies. It is proper that the first Australian vessel to hail a boat carrying asylum seekers be an RAN patrol boat. But Operation Sovereign Borders has radically transformed the way in which the Navy, Customs and Border Protection Service, Department of Immigration and Border Protection (that phrase again!) and Australian Federal Police respond to asylum seekers.

Since the introduction of mandatory detention by the Keating Government in 1991, successive governments, Coalition and Labor, have adopted asylum seeker policies of varying degrees of severity, depending on the extent to which the government of the day was willing to defer to — or exploit — popular anxieties about the supposed threat to Australia's borders.

Whatever the government's rhetoric, however, the navy was not expected to treat people who arrived by sea but without valid travel documents differently from other civilians they encountered in the