Captains of Australian Naval vessels should take extreme care in the next three months – Not the ordinary maritime care they always take but the care about not being made political pawns.
Over the past six years, the people-smuggling trade has dried up for two key reasons.
First, the Navy has ensured that virtually no vessel has managed to get to shore and that virtually all those vessels found at sea are returned to Indonesia.
Second, the Government has successfully run an information campaign in Indonesian refugee camps and elsewhere telling potential passengers that they would be wasting their money because Australia now had an effective turn-back policy. This has been a more effective message than telling them about the possibility of risking their lives.
Importantly, the trade has not dried up because Australian Governments have kept people in soul-destroying indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru as some sort of example, in an exercise only marginally less morally bankrupt than Nazis having occupied villagers shot as an example to suppress resistance.
The turn-back policy is now bipartisan. Labor has learned the lessons of 2007-13 when an alarming number of people arrived by boat. Labor tightened its policy before it lost office in 2013. It knows the electoral cost of not controlling borders.
Nonetheless, the Coalition is certain to run a border-security scare campaign in May, especially after Labor supported the passage this week of legislation to give doctors a greater say in who gets to come to Australia from Manus and Nauru for medical attention.
Even though the legislation is limited to only those in the camps now, the Government will portray Labor as having a scary open-border policy. And the truth will be irrelevant.
Both major parties have got form on scare campaigns. Recall Labor’s 2016 Mediscare campaign.
But the Coalition has got special form on border and boat-people scares and this puts the Navy in a difficult position.
Recall that HMAS Adelaide intercepted SIEV 4 (Suspected Irregular Entry Vessel) carrying 223 passengers seeking entry to Australia in October 2001, a month before the election.
The facts later found by two Senate inquiries were that the vessel had not been deliberately sunk. Nor had women threatened to throw their babies overboard or had actually done so to ensure rescue and transfer to Australia.
Rather the vessel had sunk because of the force of the towing and no babies went into the water before the sinking.
The naval crew knew this. The crew reported it to the captain.
Later it was revealed that someone on then Defence Minister Peter Reith’s staff had advised the true position, but Reith and Prime Minister John Howard denied this.
Who cares? By then the election had been won. Never let the truth and a good scare campaign get in the way of electoral victory.
A huge number of Australian voters cannot be relied upon to ignore an unmeritorious scare campaign. Fear is a powerful emotion.
But things may well go beyond a mere scare campaign.
1960s British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was once apocryphallyasked what a Prime Minister most feared in politics. He replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”
Those, however, were the days when Government politicians responded to events and did not make them up with creative ribbon-cutting opening events for new infrastructure in marginal electorates, or silly hard-hat and orange-vest visits to mines and manufacturing sites. And in those days it was harder to control events, like economic downturns, wars or revolutions.
These days Governments can make events, like invasions of Iraq.
These days, desperate governments might well seek to both create and control events.
Now let us turn to Section 68 of the Constitution which reads: “The command in chief of the naval and military forces of the Commonwealth is vested in the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative.”
In effect, it means that the Government of the day controls the armed forces with little or no parliamentary oversight. Australia went to war in Iraq twice under Section 68.
Under Section 68, the Government of the day instituted the turn-back policy. Equally, it could order a tactical reversal of that policy so that just one or two boats could get through in the next month or two so that Labor could be blamed.
Bear in mind, too, that there is a relationship between Border Force and people smugglers.
Recall that in 2016 Border Force officers were accused of paying $32,000 to people smugglers to return their boats and people cargo to Indonesia. That is a lot of money for a people smuggler who would be paid twice – once for loading the refugees and again for taking them back to where they came from.
So if Border Force officers could bribe people smugglers to return refugees, it is not beyond their operational capacity to bribe them or just tell them that they can organise one or two trips to Australia with impunity.
The Navy could be ordered not to touch them. Moreover, Navy personnel could be ordered never to say anything about it.
Maybe this is a tad conspiratorial, but recall the event-creation of the children overboard scandal. The Navy carried out orders and said nothing, as would be proper for them.
Meanwhile, the Australian public got duped by a scare campaign. And after the election was won, who cared? Don’t let it happen again.
We should care. Naval officers should make sure the record is kept for posterity even if not immediately available for political feasting.
One hopes, however, that the Australian public has learned and now is more astute and thinks that while border security is important, it is achievable without inhumanity. And that they read this week’s events not as “weak on security” but “strong on principle”.
In a way, this election will be as much as test for voters as for political parties.
Meanwhile, the really scary “open-border” issue which in fact threatens Australia’s security continues almost unabated. After a couple of months of politicians saying that they understand Australians’ concern about huge immigration and population growth, the Ponzi schemers were back on the airwaves this week extolling the virtues of a big Australia while fish die in the Murray-Darling, congestion continues and big profits continue for big retailers, property developers and miners at the expense of everyone else.
Both sides do it. Former PM Rudd was praising Big Australia and Treasurer John Frydenberg promoted the 190,000 annual immigration target – one Hobart every year.
Can we please replace scares with sanity and truth?
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on 16 February 2019.