There’s a ‘national emergency’ on our borders. Did you know that? I’m looking at you, beachfront dwellers. Surely you’ve noticed? Have you alerted the appropriate authorities? Laid in supplies? Built barricades and taken up arms?
You haven’t? Tsk. Clearly, you are not Doing Your Bit For The Country. Where is the Spirit of Anzac? Get out there and Support Our Boys!
What’s that, you say? What could possibly be so terrifyingly urgent that it requires us to declare a state of national emergency?
Asylum seeker boats.
Yes, you read that right. Let’s get serious.
Not to be outdone by the government’s deal with Papua New Guinea, the Coalition has gone one better, releasing its own policy for tackling the asylum seeker issue.
It’s called ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, and proposes militarising the entire situation.
We’ll get to examining that, but first let’s take a look at the language. It’s probably true to say that many people won’t read past a summary, and perhaps an introduction, and the writers of this document appear to have taken that into account.
In the Introduction alone, the word ‘illegal’ is used five times to describe asylum seeker boats. The Coalition knows very well that it is not illegal to seek asylum in this way, yet has insisted on using the term. It’s difficult to see any reason for that other than to polarise opinion against asylum seekers – and with that underlying its entire argument, the Coalition quickly throws out a plethora of statistics to drive home the point that Australia is, effectively, under attack. These statistics look impressive, but what’s really going on here?
There’s a comparison between boat arrivals in 2007 and today. That’s it; just the raw numbers. There’s no reference to the changing global situation, the incredibly slow processing time for people in camps, nor, indeed, the fact that people are often not safe even within these camps. The so-called ‘push’ factors that prompt people are entirely glossed over.
There’s a reference to the ‘queue’, with boat arrivals virtually declared not to be genuine refugees before any processing has taken place. Rather, the Coalition asserts that they are simply cashed-up and selfish:
‘These people [in camps] are genuine refugees … denied a chance at resettlement by people who have money in their pocket’.
Of course, there is no acknowledgement that linking irregular maritime arrivals with our humanitarian intake was a political move instituted by the former Howard government, completely out of the hands of asylum seekers.
There are large dollar amounts mentioned, all apparently wasteful spending on failed policies. This money, the Coalition suggests, should have been spent on causes far more deserving, such as education, infrastructure, and hospitals. Again, we have the argument that in some way, asylum seekers are responsibly for denying people their ‘rightful’ portion – this time, Australians themselves. This is dogwhistling of an almost deafening sort; it appeals to the basest, most insecure feelings in the electorate, planting the seed of fear that somehow we – and our children – will suffer if we don’t do something to stop it.
Oh, and let’s not forget the numbers of drownings at sea. Of course, any death at sea is a terrible thing, but the Coalition would have us believe that these are entirely the government’s fault. What it doesn’t want people to remember are disasters like the loss of Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X, resulting in the death of 353 people, or the sinking of SIEV 4 due to the strain of being towed – after shots were fired across its bow. Both these events happened on a Coalition government’s watch, and, to some extent, we contributed to them.
Having bombarded us with statistics, the Coalition gives us the meat of its policy. It boils down to this:
A single, ‘3-star ranking’ military commander would be in charge of dealing with asylum seeker boats. This commander is to be appointed by the Chief of the Defence Force, and report directly to the Minister for Immigration. An extraordinary amount of power would be concentrated in the hands of the commander, who would command a Task Force drawn from no less than 16 agencies, including six ministries and Australia’s intelligence agencies.
The Coalition offers this justification for such a move:
‘The scale of this problem requires the discipline and focus of a targeted military operation’.
Because there’s nothing more terrifying and dangerous to Australian security than a boat crammed full of unarmed men, women and children risking their lives, right?
To really drive home the point, ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ would be overseen by the National Security Committee. It’s a neat piece of reasoning – we tell you it’s a national emergency, we wrap it up in khaki and paranoia, and we sell it to you as something not only necessary, but actually good.
And what would this commander and his task force actually do?
First, there’s the question of detention. The Coalition spent quite a bit of media time last week asserting that it would never ‘outsource’ processing of asylum seekers. That seems to have disappeared into the ether, as this new policy commits to using both Nauru and Manus Island, and to ‘ensure resettlement in Australia is not guaranteed’. Remember, only last week, Manus Island, and Papua New Guinea in general, were apparently not fit to house anyone.
Temporary Protection Visas get a look-in, as does denying family reunions. Just in case that isn’t tough enough, the Coalition would also completely refuse to process anyone they even suspect might have destroyed identifying documents. There is no presumption of innocence here. The burden of proof is on the asylum seeker to convince officials that, if they don’t have papers, it’s for a good reason.
Where the policy gets really disturbing, however, is in the greatly expanded role of the Navy. The Coalition have long trumpeted its ‘tow back the boats’ policy. It’s still there, but with a few twists. Not only would the Navy be instructed to intercept boats in our own waters, but also to intercept and board vessels outside our sea borders, particularly if that vessel was thought to originate from Sri Lanka (note: not ships registered in Sri Lanka, merely leaving its waters). If asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were found on such a vessel, they would be forcibly removed and sent back immediately.
There is no end to the issues that this raises. Leaving aside the fact that Indonesia has repeatedly said they would not accept boats towed back to their territorial waters and dumped there, what the Coalition proposes has the potential to affect our relations with countries both in the region, and globally.
Boarding a vessel in international waters (the so-called ‘high seas’) is problematic, to say the least. It’s an act that can only legally be undertaken in extreme circumstances, prescribed by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC), to which Australia is a signatory nation. Part VII spells out the limits of action – including the right of any ship not engaged in illegal acts to undertake ‘innocent passage’. To do otherwise could be called piracy. It could also be called an aggressive act against a sovereign nation. And the Coalition wants to use our Navy to commit these acts against unarmed, helpless civilians.
Alarm bells were certainly ringing at the Australian Defence Force when this policy booklet hit the internet. General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force quickly tweeted:
Contrary to media reporting I have not provided advice or recommendations to the Coalition on asylum seeker issues.
— General David Hurley (@DavidHurley_CDF) July 25, 2013
The ADA later released a statement on the policy. In the clearest possible terms, it stated that the ADF believed that asylum seeker arrivals were unequivocally a civil law enforcement matter. It went on to assert that military intervention should only be called upon in a ‘real emergency’, and that party politics had no place in military matters.
‘There is surely no need for the measures described in Operation Sovereign Borders to be led by a military officer, either on secondment or as part of his or her military duties directly.’
As if that weren’t enough to unravel the policy, the ADA statement went on to point out that the Coalition’s plans – particularly in terms of altering the chain of command and putting a civilian in charge of operational matters – may well be in breach of Westminster conventions, the Defence Act and the Constitution.
There are serious problems with the Coalition’s policy that go beyond issues of whether we should have ‘picked up the phone to Nauru’ or taken into account that Indonesia might object to a policy designed to deter asylum seekers from leaving their shores. What the Coalition proposes is nothing less than turning the military into an arm of civil law enforcement, using it to commit acts that not only breach our responsibilities under the LOSC, but could potentially cause diplomatic incidents with both our near neighbours and other countries around the world.
There was a great deal of derisive laughter when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suggested the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy (at the time, reduced to a few motherhood statements) might lead to diplomatic conflict.
I doubt many people are laughing at that idea now.