Navy sailors now on 'war footing' to turn back boats
January 15, 2014
National security correspondent
Navy personnel carrying out border protection were quietly stripped of some workplace safety protections and obligations last month in an apparent preparation for dangerous operations such as turning back boats.
The Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, used his powers under workplace safety laws shortly before Christmas to exempt Navy sailors from their obligation to take ''reasonable care'' to ensure their own safety and that of other sailors and asylum-seekers.
The change aims to give sailors legal protection, meaning they would ''not face individual criminal sanctions under the Act for giving effect to Government policy'', an explanatory statement issued by General Hurley states.
General Hurley acted in consultation with Employment Minister Eric Abetz to make the change, which effectively puts the sailors on a similar footing to military personnel fighting in battle.
The change, made on December 19, came as the government enacted its hardline election promise of turning back asylum-seeker boats, which critics have warned poses dangers to Navy personnel and asylum seekers. As many as six are believed to have been turned back to Indonesia in recent weeks.
It came as the Abbott government has announced the closure of four immigration detention centres, which Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said would save at least $88.8 million a year. The centres - Scherger facility in Queensland, Port Augusta facility in South Australia, Leonora facility in Western Australia and Pontville facility in Tasmania - were no longer needed, he said.
Also on Tuesday, refugee advocates said about 50 asylum seekers had gone on hunger strikes on Christmas Island and about six had sewn their lips together.
Activist Pamela Curr said the protests were largely over the separation of families in detention - a practice the government has denied is happening. A spokeswoman for Mr Morrison refused to comment, saying to do so could ''provide an incentive for such behaviour''.
A leading industrial law expert, Professor Ron McCallum of the University of Sydney, blasted the workplace change, saying it seemed squarely aimed at carrying out the government's turnback policy.
''Navy personnel work very hard and I mean no criticism of them … but this is not a war situation,'' he said. ''I think it's a pity to alter those laws and any turnback policy should be ensuring refugees and sailors are safe.''
The Greens have referred the change to a committee with a view to possibly trying to strike it down in the Senate. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said it highlighted the dangers of boat turnbacks.
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