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Toxic politics endure as Morrison gets nosy with the Navy


HMAS Coonawarra, the naval base in DarwinIf 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 course of duty. It was up to civilian agencies to determine the ultimate status of boat arrivals, and the Navy's job was principally to ensure that the arrivals were delivered to those agencies safely.

Under Operation Sovereign Borders, however, the Navy is actively expected to stop the boats, which in practice means turning them back. And although the official villains in the story continue to be people smugglers, it is abundantly clear that the real targets of this exercise of military deterrence are the asylum seekers themselves. They have, in effect, finally been cast in the role that Australia's xenophobes always imagined them to have, that of enemy aliens violating Australian sovereignty.

This has led not only to a further reneging on Australia's international obligations under the UN Refugees Convention, and to the disintegration of this country's always sensitive, though recently comparatively cordial, relationship with Indonesia. It has also imposed on the Defence Force, and in particular the Navy, a role that it should not have, and it is blurring the lines of civilian and military authority.

It has been but a short step from Tony Abbott's pre-election pledge to appoint a 'three star' officer to command the border-protection operation — Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell holds the same rank as the Chief of Army, David Morrison — to the bizarre spectacle of Scott Morrison becoming the first Immigration Minister to inspect ADF facilities. This week he is touring HMAS Coonawarra, the naval base in Darwin (pictured), and the RAAF base at Tindal, near Katherine, in the company of a junior defence minister, Stuart Robert.

Meanwhile the actual Defence Minister, Senator David Johnston (recognise the name? No? Most people don't) has muddied the waters, if they can get any murkier, by describing Operation Sovereign Borders as a civilian law-enforcement mission. So why does it need to be under the command of such a high-ranking military officer?

According to a news.com.au report, ADF personnel are not happy about the Immigration Minister using their bases for photo opportunities, especially while their own minister remains all but invisible. They are beginning to wonder who is the real defence minister, though they are not yet backgrounding reporters on other, more sensitive, issues such as how the Navy feels about the situation it has been placed in with regard to the much publicised incursions into Indonesian territorial waters by vessels engaged in Operation Sovereign Borders.

The official inquiry into these violations of Indonesian sovereignty found that naval and customs vessels had entered Indonesian waters six times during December and January, and attributed these incidents to miscalculation by the ships' commanders. The inquiry's report echoes the Immigration Minister's insistence that the incursions were 'inadvertent'.

Whatever the report says, however, that assertion remains almost inconceivable. The Navy has modern warships with sophisticated navigation equipment and highly trained crews. They do not get lost at sea. But if they are following orders to harass and pursue boats carrying asylum seekers, they might find it extremely difficult to remain on one side of an imaginary line in the water.

Their Indonesian counterparts know that, and Indonesia's politicians know very well who is ultimately responsible for creating a situation that could lead to conflict between the navies. They might also relish the irony of seeing in Australia an increasing interpenetration of military and civilian hierarchies — something that Australians used to see as a fault in Indonesia.

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Operation Sovereign Borders, asylum seekers, Scott Morrison, Australian Defence Force



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Existing comments

Our Government has never stopped a proper boat designed to carry passengers. We have boats arriving every day on our shores. The boats which are used by people smugglers are not seaworthy and often just a pile of rotten wood held together with flaking paint. It would be highly irresponsible to keep on inviting people to risk their lives. We all know that the disastrous Rudd-Brown policies has lead to the death of at least 1100 people and if Indonesian sources are correct, maybe well over 2000 may have perished. Each of these lives lost is due to the change of a policy designed to attract votes at the 2007 election. I am getting angry about irresponsible people trying to play the “Goody” and then encourage more people to risk their lives. We just had an election and the majority of people of Australia want to stop this deadly, but lucrative trade.

Beat Odermatt | 18 February 2014  

The people smuggler meme has run it's course, we are the only smugglers here.

Marilyn | 18 February 2014  

T Abbott seems to like Men in Uniform. He lives in a police barracks, dragged ADF into boat business and has G Pell is a mentor.

rose | 19 February 2014  

In his enthusiasm to justify our inhumane policy and practice against asylum seekers, Beat Odermatt lashes out with apparently little care for the truth. Stopping the boats is not about saving lives at sea. It is all about defending Australia's borders against an imagined invasion. Beat, haven't you noticed the government's own name for their policy - Operation Sovereign Borders. That says it all! The shameful fact quoted by Ray Cassin is that 60% of us, the Australian public, not only support this vicious racist policy but actually want the government to be more vicious towards people fleeing their homelands to escape such cruelty. And please, a little respect for the Indonesian fishermen whose boats are requisitioned (together with themselves) to transport the asylum seekers. Far from "just a pile of rotten wood held together with flaking paint" these boats are the backbone of the Indonesian domestic fishing fleet. The reason some sink on the way to Australia is because they are overcrowded by those who arrange the boats for this work - people from among the various refugee groups generally referred to as people smugglers. And as Ray Cassin stated, although the official villains [are] people smugglers ... the real targets are the asylum seekers...

Ian Fraser | 19 February 2014  

To Marilyn: I don’t understand why you still support an industry which causes so many people to die. I fail to understand supporters of this industry can actually sleep in the knowledge that their support of people smugglers has led to so much misery.

Beat Odermatt | 19 February 2014  

Thanks. Our preoccupation with stopping fearful people from getting here any way they can is muddying our military arrangements and makes us look like shockers. Solutions start well away from our borders. Our government needs to raise its sights.

RFI Smith | 19 February 2014  

I would like to ask Mr Odermatt to elaborate a little on his perplexing argument that the nature or condition of the boats or ships somehow denotes the authenticity of the claims of those who legally seek admission to Australia as refugees (in numbers, incidentally, which are minuscule compared with those moving to Europe from Africa and elsewhere, or fleeing the Syrian war). Would he, between 1933-1945, have demanded that those fleeing the Third Reich should arrive with a full complement of papers, in neat and clean clothes, and by aircraft, passenger ships and first-class railway compartments? The truth is that the majority of Australians live in complete ignorance of the condition of the lives of those who, elsewhere, must live under tyranny and real threat to their physical lives (let alone their spiritual freedom). That ignorance and complacency has produced a hard-hearted and hostile nation, indeed.

John CARMODY | 19 February 2014  

What the Abbot Government needs next is Operation Sovereign Climate using the military might to role back the rising sea levels, increasing heat waves, severe droughts, more frequent bush fires and torrential rains. The Abbot Government has begun its Operation Sovereign Climate by abolishing the Climate Council to mute the science and scientists

Richard Smith | 19 February 2014  

Ironic isn't it that on the day [Feb 19] that we remember the bombing of Darwin we are confronted with a photo of the Navy Base in Darwin harbour. I know it's not the editor's intention but the way Operation Sovereign Borders is presented the unfortunate association is that once again we are under attack! Yes we are under attack from our own narrow mindedness and willful blindness to the desperate needs of people fleeing persecution. Well done Ray

Mike Bowden | 19 February 2014  

Beat, this article is not about 'people-smugglers', it's about the rapid militarisation of our domestic law-enforcement processes. And, as Ray suggests, it's something about which we should all be both aware and afraid. The role of the AFP, Customs, etc is to administer the law in a civil environment. The role of the ADF is to kill and destroy in a lawless environment. If you are happy for the ADF to get involved in unlawfully interfering with shipping in international waters, or in enforcing domestic law in Australian waters, then start getting used to the idea of military personnel routinely guarding airports and public buildings, with snipers on city rooftops and military vehicles in the street, with the military being called in to deal with mass shootings, civil protests, or industrial disputes. Because that it is the way that Abbott and Morrison are heading.

Ginger Meggs | 19 February 2014  

I find the increasing militarisation of our society alarming, and I also deplore the growth of the spooks industry (ASIO). Before you know it we'll wake up in a society that has much more to do with the systems we used to deplore, rather than those we dared to admire.

Eveline Goy | 19 February 2014  

Beat - The Abbott Sovereign Border is causing people to die. Have you noticed?

Eveline Goy | 19 February 2014  

RFI Smith has raises the dangerous path that the policy of Abbott and Morrison is taking us.They are "muddying our military arrangements". The military's historic role in defending our shores has been compromised. A policy supported unanimously by a nation united against a common enemy is now used to support the narrow ideology of a political party. The Abbott government has placed ideology in control, the division of powers, the basic building blocks of a democracy are bring abused to serve an ideology. The independent role of the military must be maintained, to defend the realm not promote the divisive policy of the government in power. We are on the slippery slope that leads to those countries where the military is a tool of the party in power. Be worried.

Name | 19 February 2014  

I feel sorry for General Angus Campbell as he does the government bidding as a puppet

Maureen Stewart | 19 February 2014  

Muddy waters indeed! Confusing diplomatically, politically and for those who have to enforce the twisted roles they have been given. The irony of Australia's encroaching on Indonesian waters while we defend our own so called Sovereign Borders surely must be obvious. Have the 60percent consifered

Name | 19 February 2014  

Rfi Smith points out that the Abbott government is "muddying our military arrangements". In fact they are breaching the division of powers that places the military above politics. It is an important principle that ensures confidence in the armed forces who are employed to defend the realm not the particular policy of a political party. Abrogation of this distinction means that the armed forces can be used by corrupt governments to pursue their agenda. The Abbott government's abusing of the separation of powers to pursue it's narrow ideology is a step on the slippery slope that undermining the pillars of our democracy.

Reg Wilding | 19 February 2014  

I cant' believe that some people (minority) are so much against Tony Abbott and support economic immigrants who have the money to pay air fares to travel through many countries then pay thousands of dollars to people smugglers to get to the country of their choice Australia. Yet persecuted Christian Arabs wait a long time in refugee camps, for a Christian country to invite them to settle. But they cant' because the illegal immigrants take their places. It is a disgrace that so much injustice is allowed to happen when you listen to do-gooders. The vast majority of Australians including CATHOLICS voted for Tony Abbott, to stop people smugglers sending illegal immigrants in leaking boats to Australia. It is about time the Left wing advocates stop rubbishing Australia and accept the verdict of the majority Australians.

Ron Cini | 19 February 2014  

Ron Cini, Majority is not necessarily 'right'. Australia is acting in a shameful cowardly manner. Why are those in detention not processed more quickly. . Is the Govt. frightened of these vulnerable seekers of asylum. Or are they racist........? Australians!! wake up!! Are we going to allow the Military control our domestic problems. That is what is happening in North Korea! We are a weak pathetic and selfish country ,as regards our brutality towards those seeking asylum here. Unfortunately, we will reap what we sow.

Bernie Introna | 19 February 2014  

Thanks, Ray, for explaining the reasons behind the uneasy feelings I always experience when 'Admiral' Scott Morrison appears on TV (to not talk about asylum seekers) with his military friend and basks in the media spotlight.

Peter | 20 February 2014  

It is Indonesia's interests to stop the people smugglers because if there are no smugglers there will no people trying to get to Indonesia. Tony Abbott is doing a great job and good on him for showing what can be done if you try hard enough. Labor started this problem and now the Liberals will finish it. Thank God for that. You can come to my country anytime if you do so properly.

Phil | 20 February 2014  

And what, I wonder, when "Phil" means by "coming properly"? Without papers? Claiming refugee status -- which by international law, they're fully entitled to do. The means of arrival is irrelevant and should in no fair or legitimate way be deemed to be "improper" as "Phil"s seems to wish to do. Many of the Jews who fled Hitler's Reich, or those who escaped from the the Soviet Gulags, had no papers or documentary proof of their identity. They were often dishevelled and had been helped by false documentation and other people's money. Yet they were unquestionably genuine refugees. Even then Australians were judgemental and harsh but the nation's activities today seem unprecedented in their intolerance.

John CARMODY | 21 February 2014  

I know that whoever mentions the H word and the War loses the argument. However there are parallels we ought consider. We say of Germany or Russia, "
"But they must have known and they did nothing and why did the army & co just refuse to follow crazy orders?" We do seem to talk about our Borders a lot but what do we do? Naive as it may sound, Hitler could not do what he did on his own. No one seems to consider the navy and army personnel who could just drop out or refuse to follow an illegal order. Sure it might cost them their job, following a moral line often does. And similarly the bureaucrats and paid media spinners. Get out lads and lasses while you still have a shred of humanity. "Insurrection"! you bet you. Better than betraying yourself and your nation. What will we tell our grandchildren we did to stop national cruelty?

Michael D. Breen | 21 February 2014  

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