Have we lost our bearings entirely?

January 18, 2014

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison would have us believe there are several captains of either Royal Australian Navy or Customs and Border Protection vessels who get a bit lost at sea. They sail out of Australia's territorial zone, across international waters, and ''inadvertently'' and ''unintentionally'' amble in and out of Indonesian waters. Do they need a compass? Did someone forget to fit these vessels with a global positioning system? It is difficult to accept that highly trained and experienced captains, operating close to sensitive foreign borders, don't seem to know where they are.

The government has issued an unconditional apology to Indonesia after admitting Australian vessels intruded into their waters while dealing with asylum-seeker boats. These intrusions occurred not once or twice, mind you, but several times, and involved more than one vessel. Australians are entitled to ask why and how this has happened, and they are entitled to genuine answers as opposed to the stonewalling, secrecy and obfuscation that has become a hallmark of the Abbott government. As The Age has said before, governments that lack transparency eventually lose the trust of the people.

Mr Morrison says the intrusions were unintentional and in breach of government policy. Quite simply, that suggests incompetence on a level that we find bewildering, or it lacks credibility. Here we are, chest-thumping about a boat interception and deterrence strategy labelled Operation Sovereign Borders, and we can't even get our own bearings. These illegal intrusions are the inevitable result of trying to execute a flawed policy of turning back, and now towing back, boats.

Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, who is in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders, says he is ''very comfortable there are active controls to ensure that our vessels do not cause such mistakes or have such mistakes in future''. But that does not explain why it occurred in the first place. Surely there are already ''active controls'' to ensure all vessels on border duties know exactly where they are at all times. General Campbell says he believes the errors were innocent, though he will not venture how they occurred. The Age does not like to speculate either, General. We believe it is better to have accurate answers, and that Australians deserve to hear them swiftly. We also believe in accountability. Multiple intrusions suggest a systemic issue is at play. We find it hard to believe it is due to poor map-reading skills. It is fair, however, to ask whether by cloaking the boat deterrence strategy in a militaristic guise and, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott has done, equating it to being a war footing, the effect has been to vest captains with implicit authority to do whatever they consider necessary.

Mr Morrison triumphantly declares that not one boat-borne person had been transferred to immigration authorities since December 19. That may be correct. What Mr Morrison did not reveal, however, was that a week ago the navy took custody of 56 asylum seekers, photographed and interviewed them over two days, then transferred them to a Border Protection vessel, which held them for a further three days. In all, those asylum seekers were held for five days in Australian custody, on Australia-flagged vessels, before they were loaded onto an Australian lifeboat and sent to sea again. This is a clear abrogation of our responsibilities under the UN convention.

For years, the Coalition refused to explain how it would execute its ''stop the boats'' policy, implying Australians should merely trust that it could. Its policies and actions have strained relations with Indonesia and cruelled the prospects of thousands of asylum seekers and existing refugees in Australia, and now we have breached sovereignty. Trust, need we remind the government, is a precious thing.


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