The Politics    Thursday, October 29, 2015

Water, water everywhere

By Michael Lucy

Water, water everywhere
The public has a right to know what government officials do, on water or off

Amnesty International has released the results of an investigation into an incident in May, when Australian officials reportedly paid some $32,000 to the crew of a boat carrying asylum seekers. In return, the crew turned the boat around and took their passengers back to Indonesia.

The claims, which were made by an Indonesian police officer and backed up by passengers, came to light in June and met a firm denial from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. He didn’t get into the detail, of course, because it was an “on-water matter”. Tony Abbott claimed there was only one thing to say: “we have stopped the boats”, which sounded like a tacit admission that his Border Force would stop at nothing to prevent asylum seekers reaching Australia.

Amnesty investigators say they have interviewed the 62 passengers from the boat, who are now in detention in Indonesia, as well as six crew members, and all of their stories indicate that a payment was made. The Indonesian government says it has asked the Australian government for information about the issue and, having received no reply, now believes that “there was an illicit payment”. An Indonesian MP has called on Australia to drop the boat turn-back policy, and proposed a joint Australian-Indonesian investigation.

If the payment did occur, the government arguably participated in people smuggling, in contravention of international law.

Dutton has responded to the report with defensive umbrage: he tried to shrug it off by questioning Amnesty’s motives, and complained that they “try to attack Border Force staff, naval staff, and I think it’s a disgrace”. He said that the government was “not going to be bullied” into “watering down” Operation Sovereign Borders.

You need to contort yourself quite a bit to think that an NGO criticising a government is somehow bullying it, but Dutton – like Abbott – apparently sees himself as bravely standing up to not only the inrushing tide of desperate brown people in leaky boats but also the malevolent force of human-rights advocacy, armed only with the power of government and a quasi-military Border Force.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had a more measured response: “Australian officials are acting in accordance with Australian domestic law and in accordance with Australia’s international obligations.” Her complacency, like Dutton’s, suggests that both of them are confident that they know what happened.

If that’s the case, however, why the opposition to investigation? If Australian officials did nothing wrong, why not clear up the question marks? A Greens-led Senate inquiry is under way and due to report in January. Dutton should instruct all relevant personnel to give it their full cooperation, and take seriously its outcome.

It won’t happen, though: the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is allergic to transparency. The DIBP routinely delays even the simplest FOI requests and misses deadlines. A culture of secrecy prevails. Silence has been part of the Operation Sovereign Borders strategy for too long. We have a right to know what is being done in our name, on water or off.


Today’s links

  • More awful stories from the immigration horror show: two Australian girls living in jail with their mother at Villawood detention centre; the suicide of an asylum seeker living in the community; the ongoing saga of Abyan.
  • An InnovationXchange hackathon at the department of foreign affairs has led to a plan for a “cloud passport” system. (Or in other words a gigantic online biometric identity database that would render passports obsolete. What could possibly go wrong?)
  • Mick Dodson says the Ayers Rock Resort at Uluru should be handed over to the land’s traditional owners.
  • A new study of social cohesion indicates that Australia is hanging together fairly well.
  • According to a report from the Australian Communications and Media Authority, government agencies accessed the telecommunication account information of more than 820,000 people in 2014–15.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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