It was always likely to happen and now it has. Immigration C-in-C Scott Morrison and his executive generalissimo Angus Campbell have gone rogue. It is time, past time, to confront the obvious: Operation Sovereign Borders is out of control and running amok.
Last week prime minister Tony Abbott was forced to snub the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had extended an olive branch to meet him in Bali and start repairing the fractured relationship. The official spin was that Abbott had to stay in Canberra to prepare the budget, but the budget date of May 14 was set in stone years ago and the key decisions had already been taken. The real reason, well-informed and (this time at least) reliable sources insist, was that the most recent hijinks at sea of the tight-lipped duo made the meeting impossible; they would have been just too embarrassing for the Indonesian president.
Apparently not only had our navy turned back another unseaworthy vessel whose occupants had to be recued by their Indonesian counterparts; in the process they had added three more detainees to the passenger list so the boat actually arrived back in Java with more on board than it had when it embarked. At least that it is the version being very firmly promulgated from Jakarta, and since Morrison will not deny it (secret on-water matters of course) it is presumably accurate.
This marks a serious escalation almost certainly not sanctioned by cabinet and probably not even by Abbott himself. Unsurprisingly it was roundly condemned by the feisty Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa. You can see his point. Turning boats back is bad enough, but it could perhaps be tolerated if the Australian government did not keep bragging about it and telling the world that they did not give a rat’s arse if Jakarta objected. But using those same would-be asylum seeker craft to deport our own rejects constitutes an entirely new level of contempt.
Even if Yudhoyono, previously a good friend of Australia and now seeking reconciliation in the twilight of his presidential term, might be prepared to forgive it as a slice of ocker Realpolitik, his rivals and compatriots will not. So Morrison and Campbell, always beyond scrutiny and now apparently beyond accountability, have managed to trash the relationship with our huge and increasingly powerful neighbour, the relationship that Abbott once called Australia’s most important. (Of course on various occasions he has also said the same about the United States, Japan and China, and his compulsive monarchism presumably means that he personally feels the United Kingdom is also up there; but hey, at the very least Indonesia is in the top five).
The demented duo have guaranteed that Yudhoyono’s successor, whoever he may be, will be far less sympathetic towards Australia than the benign SBJ. Indeed, the contestants for the next presidential election will probably vie with each other to bad-mouth the great southern bully as much as possible, and in office will feel bound to live up to their rhetoric. And it isn’t only Indonesia; via such highly respected international organisations as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, Amnesty and many others the word is getting around that the new government is plumbing new depths.
But never fear, we have our allies: Sri Lanka is fulsomely grateful that Australia failed to join others in sponsoring a resolution for an investigation into possible abuses of human rights during its war against the Tamil separatists. It was, of course, a quid pro quo for Sri Lanka’s support for the policies of Operation Sovereign Borders, a textbook case of the way the Stop The Boats obsession is distorting out foreign policy.
All these shenanigans have allowed Morrison to cash in on the national paranoia he has ably orchestrated; his portfolio is now to be expanded to take in the entire Customs Department, and to use it as a base to set up a new paramilitary body to be called the Australian Border Force. This will, he assures us, be under the control of a civilian; a commissioner who will nonetheless have standing equal to that of the chief of the defence forces and who will report directly and exclusively to the newly enhanced minister.
Springing this development on a startled audience at the Lowy Centre, Morrison gave no guarantees that his new force would be any more transparent or accountable than his old one and showed that he intended to maintain the iron curtain by not informing any of those directly affected in advance; officers of the soon to be defunct Customs Department had to read about their new status and new minister in the morning papers.
Morrison clearly enjoys Abbott’s confidence; after all, he has stopped the boats, or at least turned them back, which to the voters of the western suburbs amounts to the same thing, even if Fiona Scott still has to suffer traffic jams on the M4. And he is definitely a minister on the make; he has revelled in speculation that he could one day take the top job himself. Which should make the thoughtful very nervous. Allowing politicians whose ambition and arrogance greatly outweigh their abilities and character to acquire their own private armies is seldom a good idea.
To take just one obvious example: when Adolf Hitler gave his mate Heinrich Himmler control of the SS in 1929, the organisation was a single battalion of 290. Within a year Himmler had raised its ranks to 3,000 and by the time Hitler gained supreme power in 1933 the SS numbered 52,000. And so it went. Yes, I know, any mention of Hitler means I lose the argument. Gerard Henderson has said so and Gerard Henderson is always right, or at least Right. But that does not alter the fact that Scott Morrison has already done great damage to Australia’s reputation and to our foreign policy.
And something warns me that we ain’t seen nothing yet.