Border protection silence is deadly

Tony Kevin | 24 September 2013
Eureka Street

Scott Morrison'This briefing is not about providing shipping news to people smugglers.' Scott Morrison, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, first Operation Sovereign Borders briefing on 23 September 2013

'It will be a tougher approach ... our responsibility [to stop the boats] is absolute.' Morrison

'That [question] goes to operational matters ... you will not be getting commentary from this podium [Morrison] or that podium [Lt-Gen Angus Campbell, commander of OSB] either way on these matters.' Morrison

No questions were put to either the minister or the operational commander about safety-of-life-at-sea (SOLAS) or search-and-rescue (SAR) obligations and protocols governing Operation Sovereign Borders. This is deeply regrettable, because around 1100 asylum seekers drowned in the past four years in this same Australian Border Protection Command theatre of operations. And during the election campaign, both major parties made much of their humanitarian concern to stop the drownings, by stopping the boats.

Neither Morrison nor Campbell offered any words on this on Monday. No media present asked any questions that might have triggered useful responses on it. Nor did Labor's official commentators (Chris Bowen or Tony Burke) say anything on the drownings issue in their reported responses to this first briefing.

Deaths at sea have apparently dropped off the major party radar screens completely at least until the next maritime tragedy, which both parties will no doubt exploit to score points off the other. i

To their credit, both Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Labor leadership candidate Bill Shorten addressed it. Hanson-Young, condemning OSB secrecy, commented that 'people's lives are involved in these kinds of operations'. Shorten said that it would be 'a disgrace' if the new system did not disclose details of drownings. 'I can't imagine who dreamed that up, not telling anyone about deaths at sea ... If a boat sinks ... I don't think the government has a right to not tell people that this tragedy has occurred.'

Let's look at practicalities. How will OSB handle issues of its public accountability for safety of life at sea?

We don't know yet where at sea OSB proposes to intercept boats. We do know that asylum seekers often carry mobile phones which they sometimes use to send distress calls en route to 999, Australian Federal Police, Australian Maritime Safety Authority, or relatives in Australia. These phones work reliably within 40 nautical miles of Christmas Island, according to a recent media report. We are told that passengers use these phones to report back to people smugglers when they are about to be intercepted by an Australian vessel. It is all very public.

Is OSB going to put a gag on phone call records to 999 or AMSA or AFP or families in Australia, which are publicly accountable and retrievable data?

AMSA is part of the 15-government-agency committee advising OSB. How will AMSA satisfy itself that interception procedures following a distress call from an asylum-seeker boat accord with Australia's obligations under the UN SOLAS and SAR Conventions, and with AMSA's own operational manuals for SAR?

How will we know when and whether OSB is honouring its legal maritime safety obligations? These questions are not moot or otiose. Australia's maritime safety obligations were repeatedly violated during Operation Relex, the 2001 precursor to Operation Sovereign Borders and in many ways its model.

We did not find out until a year later in 2002 thanks to the persistence of Senators Cook, Faulkner, Collins and Bartlett in the Senate Ad Hoc Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident just how repeatedly and seriously those obligations were being violated by ADF ships' commanders and those instructing them from shore.

Recall the history of the Palapa, the boat rescued by Tampa after its distress signals were ignored for two days by Australian Coastwatch. Recall SIEV 4, the children overboard boat, subject initially to dangerous attempts by HMAS Adelaide to coerce it into turning back, and later left to founder, with passengers and an ADF boarding party having to jump in the water before any rescue of passengers was allowed to happen. Recall SIEV X. Recall the many other incidents in 2001 where SOLAS obligations were compromised, that came to light in the Senate Committee. Recall the dangerous incidents over the past four years. Do we want to go back to all that?

Consider the rights and obligations of ADF ships' commanders taking part in OSB. Morrison said that decisions about turning back the boats would be 'operational decisions for those operationally in control of implementing the Government's policies ... These are decisions politicians would only be involved in where policy guidance is sought'.

To me, that last caveat sounds ominous. Can ADF ships' commanders be secure in the knowledge that their SOLAS obligations will never be compromised by inappropriate 'policy' guidance from shore, from the political or force commander level? Watching the minister's and force commander's demeanour in their first OSB briefing, I feel no such confidence. Are these men desperate to win, at whatever the cost to those who serve under them?

Will ADF ships' commanders have what they are supposed to have under law decision-making autonomy in putting SOLAS legal obligations at the forefront of their operational decisions in attempted turnback operations? Do they know that their careers will not suffer if they properly put protection of human life at sea first?

Do we not need now before turnback operations get seriously underway, because this will require Indonesian assent to hear explicit general public assurances from the minister and force commander on these crucial professional questions? Or will this be evaded on the spurious argument that it will help the people smugglers?

I hope that these questions crucial for the integrity of OSB and the protection of the ADF's professionalism will be explored at the next media briefing. OSB must aspire to be a legally accountable, no deaths operation.

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