Twirling towards freedom

It's time to stop the... shipping news

Those of us who rolled our eyes or flung our remotes at the television screen whenever Tony Abbott made his earnest, impassioned campaign-winning promise that “We. Will. Stop. The. Boats.” were rewarded with a healthy dose of smug satisfaction when three boats arrived in Australian waters within the first five days of our new Prime Minister being elected. As to whether any boats have arrived since Abbott was officially sworn into office last week, well, we certainly aren’t going to find out as it happens. 

Previously, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service would issue a statement whenever an asylum seeker boat arrived in Australia’s waters. Media outlets were automatically notified when boats were intercepted or were in distress, sometimes receiving multiple notifications per day. In the past week there have been no notifications, and all media inquiries have been referred by Customs to the Immigration Minister.

Abbott’s government will be keeping a tight lid on news of arriving boats, as foreshadowed by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison during the election campaign. At the time, Morrison said that it would be an “operational matter” for the three-star head of the Coalition’s new Operation Sovereign Borders taskforce, and Morisson has now confirmed that the decision to notify the public about boat arrivals will indeed rest with the military head of the Operation. The newly-anointed Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell will lead weekly briefings where, according to Morrison, “[Information] will be provided in a way that best supports the objectives of the operation to stop the boats.”

At Monday’s media briefing Morrison advised that 523 asylum seekers have arrived by boat, but half have already left our shores for processing on either Manus Island or Nauru. Eight boats have arrived since 7 September. Morrison has been cagey about whether the public would be notified immediately if a boat were to sink and asylum seekers drowned, saying only that, “Where additional briefings are required that decision will be taken at the time.” 

Jaymes Diaz excepted, most of us know that, short of allowing asylum seekers to reach Australia by airplane, there’s really only one way to stop the boats – to turn them back to Indonesia ‘when safe to do so,’ despite Indonesia’s feelings on this particular matter – and it’s difficult to see how the timely reportage that another boat has been intercepted will in any way affect this operation. Being spoon-fed the news on a weekly basis will mean that every Monday’s headlines will be dominated by the boats that either arrived or failed to reach our shores, somewhat normalising the issue of asylum seekers and their plight.

During his inaugural speech as Prime Minister, Abbott said that, “We aim to be a calm, measured, steady and purposeful government that says what it means and does what it says,” but if the Coalition isn’t planning on being transparent about what it does, how are we to assess whether their actions are calm, measured or steady? 

Morrison has said that the previous Rudd-Gillard government was running a “shipping news service” on boat arrivals, but with an issue as contentious and fraught as Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers surely more information, not less, is in the public’s best interest. When the lines of accountability begin to look more like a closed circle, it’s a worrying scenario indeed.

At the end of this week Abbott will head to Jakarta to meet with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to discuss the future relationships between the two countries. Abbott has suggested that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia will not be defined by boat arrivals, and that “this will hopefully be a passing irritant, not a long-term defining issue.” Abbott told the press last Thursday that he “absolutely, totally” respects Indonesia’s sovereignty despite comments from Indonesian MP Tantowi Yahya that the Coalition’s turn-back policy is “offensive”, “illegal” and could jeopardise good relations between the countries. “My argument is with people smugglers and my point to the people smugglers is ‘the game is up’,” Abbott said. 

If his first week in government is any indicator, it would seem that the game is just beginning. 


Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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