Guest post by Tony Kevin
We will see under the Abbott Government a tougher philosophy and administration of Australia's policing of its northern maritime borders against unauthorised boat people. It cannot be assumed numbers of arrivals will quickly fall to zero, though they are already trending downwards since Kevin Rudd announced in July that all irregular maritime arrivals will be processed in PNG or Nauru and resettled offshore.
The Coalition pledged during the campaign to maintain that policy, and to augment it with new tough measures of deterrence at the borders.
In our northern maritime approaches, the new Government faces three policy challenges: to maintain maritime border protection and rescue-at-sea systems that are transparent and publicly accountable; to restore clarity to an Australian maritime rescue response system whose understanding of its responsibilities has been clouded by the pressures of the past four years; and to try to turn boats back to Indonesia without loss of life at sea.
There has been some public discussion of the third challenge, which is essentially operational. But the first and second are even more important, because they go to the heart of Australian values as a successful multicultural country of immigration that respects human rights.
One of Labor's humanitarian achievements was to establish a system of routine media releases announcing every boat interception and every incident of assistance to boats in difficulty at sea. The public thus had access to reasonably prompt and accurate numbers of arrivals and deaths at sea. Major fatal incidents at sea were reported in ministerial media briefings. They have been subject to routine internal Customs and Border Protection departmental reviews. There have, commendably, been four public coronial inquests.
It would be tragic if under Operation Sovereign Borders, as foreshadowed by Scott Morrison, the present degree of public transparency and accountability for deaths in border protection operations were to be abandoned on the spurious pretext (as happened under Operation Relex in 2001) that these are matters of national security that cannot be disclosed. It was a lesson from Operation Relex that any attempt to hide border security operations in which unacceptable risks were taken with human life, or in which deaths at sea occurred, will inevitably leak out. A civilised country should not fear submitting its border protection practices and outcomes to regular public reporting.
The second challenge is equally important. In the last four years, while up to 50,000 boat people have safely reached Australia, around 1100 people have died at sea in 30 known incidents. Many of those deaths were preventable, had Australian rescue-at-sea responses to observed or reported distress-at-sea situations been more prompt and diligent, in accordance with our Rescue at Sea Convention obligations and decent maritime practice.
Australia's rescue-at-sea values became degraded since 2009 under pressure of increasing numbers of boat people, as they were degraded during Operation Relex. In recent years, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority came to see asylum seekers venturing out in unseaworthy boats as people who exploited an international rescue-at-sea system designed for 'genuine' mariners in distress.
Even now, despite significant criticism from the Perth Coroner of response shortcomings in the most recent inquest (SIEV 358), this agency has not conceded that its role is to coordinate prompt rescue of every mariner in distress. It still acts at times as if it were a border protection policeman. The agency has become desensitised to asylum seeker deaths at sea. This must change.
On turnbacks or towbacks, the risks of deaths at sea are well known to the ADF from its 2001 experience. As the Navy understands, protecting human life at sea must always come first. Possibly, a firm but humane administration of attempted turnback operations will prevent deaths of people who are under desperate stress but are not at war with Australia.
ADF ships' commanders must never be given reckless operating instructions or be micro-managed from shore, as happened in 2001 with SIEV 4, the 'children overboard' boat. They must know that their careers will not be blighted if they put their safety-of-life-at sea obligations first in any attempted turnback situations, even at the cost of some annoyance or embarrassment to ministers. And the ADF high command must back them.
Tony Kevin served as an Australian diplomat for 30 years 1968-98, serving in posts including the Soviet Union, UN New York, and lastly as ambassador in Poland and Cambodia. His most recent book is Reluctant Rescuers (2012). His previous publication on refugee boat tragedy — A Certain Maritime Incident — was the recipient of a NSW Premier's literary award in 2005.
The original of this article was published in Eureka Street on 10 September 2013. It may be viewed at Border protection transparency under Abbott.