Yet more wars we can't win

September 25, 2013
Jack Waterford
Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

Fifteen months ago, a derelict 20-metre Indonesian fishing boat with 202 passengers phoned in from sea to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre at the Australian Marine Safety Authority. The boat had already been 44 hours at sea and was about 40 nautical miles south of Indonesia - a fifth of the way to Christmas Island. It was in trouble, the message said.

There were communication difficulties, and problems in establishing the boat's location, but within about four hours Australians had notified the Indonesians, in whose rescue zone it belonged and were monitoring the response. Whatever the Indonesians promised, or what those liaising with them imperfectly understood, nothing much happened; and calls from passengers to the RCC saying the boat was taking on water and begging for help continued.

An operations group consisting of customs, security and defence people and AMSA met that afternoon, but decided that the boat was not in any distress. Boat people, apparently, often claimed they were in trouble - the opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, claimed they were in effect using rescue as a taxi service. A day, and numerous calls later, a customs aircraft flew over to inform the committee that the boat, now about halfway to Christmas Island, was overturned with people clinging to the hull.

Nearby shipping was asked to attend, and an Australian navy ship was sent. The rescue of the survivors was exemplary once people arrived, but there was criticism that co-ordination of the affair, from Canberra, had been complacent, slow and less than diligent.

This was a conclusion firmly rejected by an internal inquiry commissioned by those involved. It thought that the timeliness of their response was ''reasonable'' - and, in a time-honoured bureaucratic manner - all involved in any part of the critical decision making - particularly as to the decision that the boat was probably OK and that claims to the contrary ''were either exaggerated or simply untrue'' - agreed that it had been a collective decision.

In the bureaucracy, when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. That the assessment made in Canberra proved to be wrong was neither here nor there; indeed those who conducted the review thought that making any improvements to procedures could introduce new risks.

When the West Australian coroner conducted an inquest into the deaths of the 17 people whose bodies were found (it is thought another 85 perished), an AFP officer told Commonwealth authorities not to give WA Police this report, or intelligence material making clear how much these officials knew about what had occurred during the boat trip. WA police found the Commonwealth far less than co-operative, and said so.

Australian bureaucrats did not kill these boat people. Those responsible are the people smugglers who sent the passengers to sea in leaky boats. But if Australia had a more proactive and compassionate response to the plight of boat people, they would have most likely survived.

If there are more drownings, those who made operational decisions will not be able to hide behind the anonymity of committees. The man in the gun will be Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell.

It is, however, by no means clear that those planning the new and militarised solution to the boat people problem expect that there will be any further inquests, even if refugees die at sea. The idea of any civilian - or citizen - being allowed to ask the general, or minister, any questions is being treated as an impertinence.

This is not the first time that Australian soldiers have been sent to war against unarmed men, women and children. And if it leads to defeat, that wouldn't be the first time either. Six years ago, John Howard sent Major-General Dave Chalmers (now a Commonwealth bureaucrat) to lead an ''emergency'' intervention against Aboriginal child abuse in the Northern Territory. It cost hundreds of millions, but had no real impact on the lives of those it was meant to help. It is likewise doubtful that General's Campbell's fulfilment of duty will improve the lives of the boat people he intercepts, those they are said to have pushed aside in some notional queue, or even Australia's reputation, civil or military, in the world. It may cause more deaths - and not only of boat people, but also our sailors. But it may sell well - at least for a while - in an electorate encouraged to think we face invasion from unwelcome people through porous borders. That's what it's all about. Political victory - at least if Campbell can deliver on a political (not operational) mandate that the work of his front-line sailors be as free from independent contemporaneous scrutiny as possible. Even refugee-hating Australians are squeamish about what repelling boarders involves.

It was not clear yesterday if Campbell is to get the full Chalmers package. Defence gave Chalmers a personal press minder focused on promoting Chalmers himself. This is a service not commonly rendered to public servants.

Campbell stands alongside the new minister, in charge of a joint agency taskforce with a deputy and three people immediately under him. His deputy is Alan McKinnon, a former deputy national security adviser (and son of a former Immigration Department secretary). It is not clear either has military command authority, as such.

One of the three operational bosses is AFP Assistant Commissioner Steve Lancaster, who co-ordinates disruption and deterrence task group operations, primarily in Indonesia but also in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and in the Middle East. (Such operations, conducted by the AFP, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, and local police and security service opposite numbers, are badly in need of external review, for probity and integrity as much as efficiency.)

Another is Rear Admiral David Johnson, who co-ordinates the detection of boats (including from secret satellite and computer interception operations, which are never admitted), the interception of boats (including sending boats back to Indonesia, if we feel like a confrontation for domestic political purposes), and transfer of boat people to Christmas Island.

The third group, under Ken Douglas, deputy secretary at Immigration, is in charge of shifting boat people to Manus Island or Nauru, and subsequent programs designed to make sure that none ever gets to mainland Australia.

Campbell has already publicly owned the claim - which is very debatable - that a curtain must be put over his activities for operational security, so as not to telegraph his activities to people smugglers or to allow them to devise counter-tactics. This will increase, not reduce, public and journalistic efforts to put his activities under close scrutiny. It will also prevent his being treated with that deference the military might ordinary get but with the suspicion that political operatives in murky fields deserve.

Likewise, the more closely his minister seeks to micro-manage publicity and the practical administration of a controversial policy, the more that he will have to wear, like Campbell, responsibility not only for outcomes but unpredictable events. Even events he does not expect, but that nonetheless are predictable, so as marked High Court distaste for the idea that immigration policy can be removed from judicial or public review.

Jack Waterford is editor-at-large.


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