Operation Sovereign Borders: dignified silence or diminishing democracy?

Hiding the government’s border control policy behind the word ‘operational’ makes the military their political pawns. AAP/Scott Fisher

Recent reports that the Australian Navy has turned back two asylum seeker boats to Indonesian waters remain shrouded under a veil of secrecy. Australia remains subject to downgraded levels of co-operation with Indonesia on people smuggling as a result of last year’s spying standoff.

Despite this, the Abbott government appears to have directed the Australian Defence Force to undertake legally questionable border control practices. “Pushing back” asylum seeker boats is a move not practised since Operation Relex under the Howard government.

The striking similarity is the concealment used by both governments to deceive the Australian public. Hiding government border control policy behind the word “operational” is a concerning move that diminishes the checks and balances of democratic control of the armed forces.

But for those who remember “Truth Overboard”, the tensions between the military and political spheres are nothing new. During the 2001 election campaign, the Coalition government’s immigration policy to “turn back the boats” resulted in the Navy’s tow of the dilapidated boat “The Olong” (also known as SIEV-4) to the point that it broke up. This sent people – including families and children – overboard.

In the same year, the Howard government authorised the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) to board the vessel of a friendly country – Norwegian freighter Tampa – to prevent the asylum seekers onboard from reaching Australian soil.

Tensions between the military and political spheres are nothing new for anyone who remembers the Tampa incident. AAP/Dean Lewins

The current Coalition government has instituted Operation Sovereign Borders, with weekly briefings and the capping of information on the events and practices of its immigration policy. This is all nested within the unusual circumstances of placing a military leader under the direct command of the immigration minister, embellished with inflammatory notions such as “the war against people smuggling” or “illegal arrivals”.

Politics academic Robert Manne explains that under the Howard government this camouflaged politics – the hiding and distorting of key government activities – was a:

… partly instinctive and partly conscious policy of systematically silencing significant political dissent.

So, is Operation Sovereign Borders another expression of diminishing democracy as a standard characteristic of recent conservative Australian governments?

The move to place the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in charge of immigration control is an expression of the political utility of democratic principles. Democratic control of the armed forces seeks to maintain sufficient separation between the military and executive government. The intent is to prevent the militarisation of executive governance, or alternatively the politicisation of the military.

But to what extent does Operation Sovereign Borders politicise the military and corrupt the separation between the state and the military?

Firstly, the military has been involved in managing asylum seekers entering Australian waters for some time. Commanders in the military operations in this domain have reported through the chain of command to the Chief of Defence (CDF). That is a constitutional principle of civil military relations.

Under Operation Sovereign Borders, the three-star general in charge – Lieutenant General Angus Campbell – reports directly to immigration minister Scott Morrison. It is an extraordinary move. Some argue that it exposes the military to undue politicisation.

In 2001, when Operation Relex was running under the Howard government, Australia’s maritime obligations were repeatedly violated. Official reports on “truth overboard” demonstrated how ADF commanders were torn between their maritime obligations and the will of their political masters.

Captain Norman Banks, the commander of the HMAS Adelaide, was ordered from Canberra to fire over the bow of the SIEV-4. He then proceeded to tow the boat around the Indian Ocean while awaiting further instruction.

Ultimately, the SIEV-4 broke up and spilt its human cargo into the sea. In a bid to be re-elected, then-defence minister Peter Reith and prime minister John Howard reported that asylum seekers were throwing their children overboard in a bid to be rescued. That event saw the public humiliation of Vice-Admiral David Shackleton, the then-Chief of Navy, for truthfully reporting on what happened at sea.

Is this not a clear expression of the politicisation of the military and the corruption of constitutional arrangements separating the state and the military, which we are now seeing repeated over a decade on? Invoking operational secrecy to shield policy decisions from scrutiny does threaten to turn the military into political pawns of the government.

Can we be confident that our commanders are not subject to inappropriate policy advice from Canberra? Are they subject to duress from the potential of political reprisal for placing their maritime obligations above the obligations of their political masters?

The current reporting arrangements mean that Operation Sovereign Borders is unable to be effectively questioned. The government tries at every point to camouflage its activities and decisions, but is aware of the thin edge upon which it travels. The separation of the reports on Operation Sovereign Border activities between commander and minister is a weak attempt to uphold their constitutional obligations.

The Australia Defence Association (ADA) has explained that Operation Sovereign Borders is a dubious move under our constitutional arrangements to place military command of an operation outside the military chain of command.

Operation Sovereign Borders has been instituted with the unusual circumstances of placing a military leader under the direct command of the immigration minister. AAP/Nikki Short

In effect, Operation Sovereign Borders is a militarisation of a humanitarian matter, taking the historical precedent and constitutional arrangement of civil military separation into undesirable territory. Transparency is diminished as the reporting of key events is whittled back to unsatisfying weekly briefings. When the media ask questions regarding the week’s activities they are often placed on hold until the following week.

This secrecy extends to attempts within parliament to gather appropriate and reliable information on the government’s activities. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young and opposition leader Bill Shorten have given some attention to the government’s policy of silence on such matters.

Despite endless commentary by the Coalition when in opposition on boat arrivals prior to and during the election campaign, the government now closely controls the distribution of information on irregular arrivals to Australia.

When we look at the lack of transparency in a historical context, consider the breach of the civil-military constitutional protocol and begin to trace the patterns of deceit and secrecy, dignity and democracy are set to be the next forms of truth overboard.