Refugees, genuine or otherwise, who set sail for Australia from countries such as Indonesia – the so-called boat people – have become a contentious political issue. It is, for instance, widely believed that the Howard government (a Liberal that is to say conservative government) was re-elected in 2001 as a consequence of the notorious ‘children overboard’ incident. It was claimed that unscrupulous asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea in order to be picked up by the Australian Navy, taken to the mainland, and, they hoped, allowed to stay. This was later shown not to have happened at all, and the suspicion remains that Howard knew it did not – his Defence Minister, the man responsible, did not seek re-election so could not be questioned in parliament. I want to consider one aspect of the most recent attempt to deal with the boat people, namely the present government’s refusal to give out anything but the barest information about what it is doing, on the basis that it cannot reveal ‘operational matters’. But first, some more background.
The conservative side of politics has prided itself on being tougher on these ‘illegals’ than their political opponents. In the last federal election the leader of the opposition, who is now prime minister, would end his speeches with the words “And of course we will stop the boats”. The Labour Party, who were then in government, did its best to sound equally tough – the so-called ‘race to the bottom’. All of this has greatly distressed fair-minded and decent Australians: it is xenophobic; it harks back to the ‘white Australia policy’ of the first half-century of federation which had it that the only suitable migrants for the country were from certain European countries, notably Britain; and it resonates with the view that Australia was an empty land before settlement by whites. The latter is, of course, the great irony because the British colonisers were themselves ‘boat people’. With all this as background, I now want to examine the basis on the present government’s restriction on information about the measures taken to ‘stop the boats’ on the ground of giving away operation and tactical information in relation to “Operation Sovereign Borders”, the pompous title given to the stop the boats’ regimen.
The government is dressing up the measures it is taking as a military operation - it has even put a Lieutenant-General in command. The ‘enemy’ are not, or are not directly, the would-be refugees themselves, but rather the people smugglers. The people smugglers, called snake heads elsewhere, are the ones who organise the boats, crews, etc., and demand large sums of money for the risky trip – risky because the boats are often in poor repair, sometimes barely sea-worthy. The operations conducted against the people smugglers and their cargoes are aimed at stopping the boats, stopping them making landfall in Australia, or preferably stopping them even entering Australian waters. We can infer that this means acting on various pieces of intelligence about where boats are, or likely to be, and sending navy vessels to intercept. Questions about the nature of this information, where it comes from, how it is obtained, the way in which the general and his forces act on it, could certainly be classified as ‘operational’.
But this is not all that the government refuses to talk about. The Australian people are not informed about how many boats are intercepted, who is on them, where are they from and why they claim to be refugees, and where are they taken. Australia has set up various offshore refugee processing centres, but the government has done its very best to prevent any details about what goes on it them as well - in spite of this embargo, news of riots, deaths and mistreatment have filtered out. How could any of this be regarded as operational? One assumes that the people smugglers could easily find out if their boats are intercepted, if they cared. They would know how many signed up for the trip, and again if they cared, they could find out where they were from, why claimed refugee status, and so forth. These facts therefore cannot affect any operation designed to stop the boats. Surely this is obvious, so why cannot the Australian people be informed? But simple requests for such facts are met with stony denial and a repetition of the mantra that these are operational matters – all senior members of the government have been well-schooled. So the only reasonable conclusion is that government’s position here is entirely dictated by politics: by maintaining a wall of silence it can give the impression that the ‘problem’ is being dealt with and that the ‘war’ against refugees is being won.
One piece of information that did come out, and which prompted this blog, was that a boat load of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, including some Tamils, was handed over at sea to the Sri Lankan navy. (There is another vessel apparently in the custody of the Austalian Navy with Sri Lankans on board, and at the time of writing there is a High Court injunction in place to stop these people being handed over. Typically, the government is refusing the release any details.) Goodness knows what will happen to these pwople, given the recent record of that country’s treatment of its minorities. This is the kind of thing that is done in the name of all Australians; vulnerable people are handed back to those who do not respect their rights as human beings. This is very nasty government and Australia should be deeply ashamed of it.