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Government issues terms of reference for inquiry into “operational matters” that went badly wrong

Scott Morrison has struggled in a difficult portfolio. AAP/Lukas Coch

Whichever side won the September election, Australia’s policy on asylum seekers was destined to take on an even harsher edge.

The Coalition campaigned for zero tolerance; Kevin Rudd sought to more than match it. If the boats were really to be stopped, there would be a lot of ugliness.

Even so, the regime under minister Scott Morrison never fails to produce new shocks.

Boat arrivals have slowed dramatically, no doubt about that, with several weeks of none (leaving aside tow backs and turnarounds), although Angus Campbell, military commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, withholds a broad assessment until after the late March end of the monsoon season.

But bungling incursions into Indonesian waters, revealed last week, have raised the already high price to the bilateral relationship of the turn back/tow back policy, while the current legal shenanigans in Nauru underline how Australia is hostage to the countries to which it has outsourced its problem. Both Nauru and Papua New Guinea are less than “best practice” in various spheres.

And infusing all aspects of the government’s approach is the arrogant style. The Coalition, just because it can, withholds information on the most spurious grounds, excuses the inexcusable, tolerates what it would have vociferously condemned in Labor’s day. Moreover, learning only selectively from the Howard experience, it has compromised the military, using it not just to execute policy but as a political shield.

The past week’s developments have been particularly unfortunate – ironically accompanying the lack of arrivals.

At a briefing last Wednesday, Campbell made a special point of declaring that “our activities and assets have never and will never violate the sovereign territory of another country.”

Ooops. Within hours he was reading an official report indicating vessels had made several incursions into Indonesian waters.

This led to grovelling Australian government apologies to our annoyed neighbour, and to an inquiry, to be done by Customs and the Australian Defence Force.

Campbell said at Friday’s news conference that those on the vessels “believed they were at all times outside Indonesian waters.”

But he and Morrison would not say how this breach of government policy had apparently happened. Were there wrong orders given to the ships, faulty instruments, maps lost overboard (figuratively speaking)?

They would not pre-empt the (in-house) inquiry, which was to determine its own terms of reference.

These were issued late tonight.

It will investigate the period from December 1 to January 20, assessing the sequence of events and cause of incursions. Last night’s statement said the inquiry, co-chaired by senior officers from Customs and the ADF, would “identify any potential procedural weaknesses or deficiencies in maritime operations and make recommendations to ensure that any immediate operational policy or procedure issues are highlighted and rectified promptly.”

Reporting date is February 10 but could be extended. At that time the heads of Defence and Customs will “consider release of the review’s findings”. The report is likely to have unclassified and confidential sections.

The Indonesians will be awaiting it with interest.

Hard on the heels of this debacle has come the shenanigans in Nauru. That country’s government sacked and deported the sole magistrate, Peter Law, an Australian, and then barred Chief Justice Geoffrey Eames, a former Victorian Supreme Court judge, from re-entering Nauru after he tried to intervene.

Although these events were unrelated to the asylum seekers Australia has sent there, many cases involving the 2013 rioting are coming before the court. Australia needs to have confidence in the legal system.

Morrison was publicly unconcerned, saying it was an internal matter for the Nauruans. “We are not seeking to over-react in any way. Things will take their course and the matter will be resolved and we’ll get on with things.”

Eames said he’d have thought that “a government which has got such close ties with Nauru [would] have more than a passing interest in such instability in the judicial system in the Pacific region.”

Especially, one might add, when during the debate about Labor’s attempted “Malaysia solution” the Coalition had made such a hoo-ha about human rights.

(The Nauru government has now appointed another Australian as magistrate.)

Australia is even more at the mercy of the PNG government. Last week Morrison couldn’t or wouldn’t give a proper update on what will be the arrangements there for asylum seekers found to be refugees. Australia won’t take them but how will they be treated in PNG? All under still-to-be-finalised discussion apparently.

In line with its wider secrecy policy on border protection, the government is trying to suppress information about self-harm incidents. Publicity only encourages such incidents, it says. Maybe. But there are competing imperatives – and a strong one is that the public should know what is going on. Otherwise there is no proper accountability.

Transparency is especially vital, and hardest to achieve, when the centres are in places like Manus and Nauru. Nauru has just increased the cost of an entry visa for a journalist from $200 to $8000.

Morrison has given up his weekly briefings and will now appear on an ad hoc basis. The opposition calls for more information but has no answers. It too just wants the boats to stop; Labor doesn’t want to make asylum seekers a political battleground.

The government is working on the principle the end justifies the means and believes as much as possible of the means should be kept out of sight. It is confident that the end – stopping the boats – has strong public support and that voters either don’t care about the means or like to see them tough.

Today’s Essential poll gives some backing to that view but the picture is mixed: 47% believe most boat arrivals are not genuine refugees; a combined 60% think either the government is taking the right approach on asylum seekers or is too soft; on the other hand, 46% say boat arrivals should be allowed to stay in Australia if they are found to be genuine refugees.

It seems likely that the government will eventually achieve its end, more or less stopping the boats, which means also stopping the drownings. But neither it, nor Australia, can avoid the stain on the nation that comes from the policy’s extreme means and scant regard for process.

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