John Menadue. The war on asylum seekers

Mar 5, 2014

For political purposes the government has deliberately embarked on a policy and a language to militarise the asylum seeker issue in the same way the Howard Government did in the “war on terror”. It is designed to highlight the government’s resolve, to play to our fears about a threat and to lessen our rights to be informed. Failure to disclose is justified because we are ‘at war’.

But the ‘war on terror’ and the so-called ‘war on asylum seekers’ would in fact be much better conducted by police, customs and our intelligence services.

In this misuse of the military and language for political purposes we should not be surprised if a two-star military general is drawn into the political fray. Neither should he or his colleagues be surprised if they also get caught in political flack.  If they are in the kitchen, they can’t complain about the heat!  The military has crossed the line before. General Cosgrave showed that he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Howard Government in forcing Tampa to transfer the asylum seekers on board. He will now be our Governor General.

Senator Conroy has been criticised for saying that General Angus Campbell, the Head of Operation Sovereign Borders, has participated in a ‘political cover-up’. In my view that is precisely what the Government and General Campbell have done. The military has been manoeuvred by the government into a role in the coordination of government agencies, most of them civil agencies like immigration and customs. To avoid public examination, the Minister Scott Morrison and General Campbell keep hiding behind the parroted phrase ‘on-water matters’. This is a political cover-up in which the military has become involved. That cover-up should be called as such.

The Coalition has been quite clear in its language that it is at war with asylum seekers and people smugglers. Scott Morrison has described Operation Sovereign Borders as ‘a military led border security operation’. Tony Abbott has spoken of a war against people smugglers. In the first week of parliament Scott Morrison said that ‘The battle [against people smugglers] is being fought using the full arsenal of measures’.

In war situations, the withholding of information can be justified. But surely we are not at war against unarmed people in rickety boats.

Just consider what we heard last week in Senate Estimates about Operation Sovereign Borders and the cover ups.

  • Under the charade of ‘operational security’ the Defence Force Chief, General David Hurley would not confirm that orange lifeboats had been used. He replied ‘That is an on-water issue’. Yet we have all seen the orange boats on TV time and time again.
  • Asked if the lifeboats were Australian-flagged, Hurley responded ‘We can’t comment on on-water issues’.
  • Asked if the lifeboats were navy assets, Hurley replied ‘They are an on-water issue’.
  • Asked if there was general training for navy personnel in the handling of the lifeboats, the Chief of the Navy, Ray Griggs, said ‘If I talk about training then I would be going to “on-water matters”’.
  • How at least six Australian navy vessels intruded into Indonesian waters was a matter of ‘on-water operations’. Undoubtedly the crew of the navy vessels will be censured, but not General Angus Campbell who is in charge of OSB. That would be politically embarrassing because he has become the point man in the government’s cruel policies and the cover up.

When public policy becomes militarised like this, no-one, including the military, can hide behind trumped up excuses, time and time again about ‘on-water issues’.

How out of proportion this has all become. The plight of vulnerable people has become a highly politicised and military issue. This is a humanitarian issue which must be handled with firmness, but that does not mean that the military should be leading it. We also need the truth rather than senior officers and military leaders using lame excuses. We have seen too many other instances where the performance of the military, particularly at the Australian Defence Force Academy leaves a lot to be desired.

Senator Conroy was much closer to the truth than his critics in the Canberra press gallery who so often see parliamentary events through a party political prism only and seems oblivious to the wider and more important issues of policy and principle.

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