Scott Morrison was on RN Breakfast on Monday 25 November, hosing down the idea that the diplomatic row with Indonesia over past spying on the Indonesian President and his wife might impede Operation Sovereign Borders. That was the day before we embarked on the whole ‘Gonski is Goneski’ kerfuffle, created by Christopher Robin-Pyne who’s been clever as clever since he reached the age of six – and has stayed that way ever since.
According to Morrison, although co-operative between Indonesia suspended its co-operation with Australia on people smuggling, That wasn’t too significant for two reasons:
- Indonesia has its own laws against people-smuggling and he expects those will still be enforced;
- The Government’s efforts to combat people smuggling don’t rely on Indonesia alone.
In support of the latter he said:
I’m always expecting people smugglers to try things on Fran, always, every single day and that’s why we’re putting pressure [on] all the way up through the chain.
Later in the interview Morrison added this interesting little snippet:
‘We’re working with Malaysia… [and Australia’s] people smuggling ambassador has been in the Middle East talking to source countries there about what we can do.’
I was surprised to learn that we have a people smuggling ambassador: it’s remarkable what you miss when your attention is focused on other things. We’ve had a ‘people smuggling ambassador’ – more precisely an Ambassador for People Smuggling Issues since 2002 when then Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, appointed John Buckley as the first holder of this sinecure crucially important position. Since then the position has been maintained by governments on both sides of the ‘two party preferred’ line; the current incumbent is Craig Chittick, appointed by Bob Carr in May 2012.
I was disappointed that Fran Kelly didn’t pounce on Morrison’s mention of our ‘people smuggling ambassador’ and his work in the Middle East, talking to source countries about ‘what we can do’. Which Middle East countries has he been talking to? What offers have been made? I was very curious to know.
It’s unlikely that, if pressed on that point, Morrison would have answered. Most likely he would have rebuffed questions on that issue on the basis that it was an operational matter under the supervision of General Angus Campbell. But even that response would have been revealing. It would have revealed that, in pursuit of its avowed mission to retain control of the country by enforcing control of its borders, this Federal government is prepared to subordinate Australia’s professional diplomats, and foreign policy, to military command and control. This is diplomacy as immigration policy by other means.
We’ve already seen one example of what the current Federal government is prepared to do to put pressure on all the way through the chain; Australia’s gift of two ex-Customs patrol boats to the Sri Lankan government, announced by Tony Abbott during CHOGM. Abbott’s CHOGM performance also gave an indication of what the Abbott government might countenance or condone – such as difficult things that happen in difficult circumstances – to prevent refugees from making the ill-informed choice to flee persecution in their home countries and endure, if a little gracelessly, persecution in Australia instead.
Morrison’s interview with Kelly raises some very serious questions about ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ (first announced as Liberal Party policy in July 2013, or July PE (pre-election)). Most of those questions are downright unpatriotic but they deserve to be asked anyway.
The most obvious question is: which ‘source countries’ in the Middle East has our Ambassador for People Smuggling Issues been talking to and what offers of Australian assistance have been put on their tables?
But that’s just a start. We’ve already seen the sort of accommodations Federal governments will make in pursuit of ‘national security’ in the case of Mamdouh Habib who, during the ‘Global War on Terror’ experienced arrest and torture in Pakistan, ‘extraordinary rendition’ to Egypt for further torture and finally transportation to Guantanamo Bay.
On December 17 2010, the ALP government of Julia Gillard entered a secret out of court settlement with Habib where Habib dropped his ‘long-running civil suit claiming commonwealth complicity in his 2001 arrest, rendition, detention and torture in Pakistan, Egypt and Guantanamo Bay’. The deal included a secrecy clause preventing details of the settlement being made public and, more importantly, the extent of the Howard government’s involvement in Habib’s Magical Misery Tour from Pakistan to Guantanamo Bay.
So there’s another question: given the past performance of the LNP coalition in washing their hands of Australian citizens when ‘national security’ is at stake, and the willingness of the ALP to cover for their opponents’ past abuses of Australian citizens’ rights on the same grounds, why should anyone – Australian or otherwise – trust Australia’s political class to respect the human rights of asylum seekers?
Backing away from those very obviously unpatriotic questions, there are still a few questions on governance that stand out – starting with: who’s actually running foreign policy these days? Is it Julie Bishop, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, is it Scott Morrison as Minister for Immigration or is it some other bugger? The answer is – we just don’t know.
Finally, it’s worth noting Scott Morrison’s declaration of his personal mission, very early in his interview with Kelly:
All of our policies, Fran, in border protectiojn [are] to stop these boats coming and that’s my single–minded focus. That’s what I’m seeking to achieve for the Australian people and that’s what I believe our Government will be judged on when it comes time for the next election [emphasis added].
And that raises one last, very loaded, question: apart from ‘stop the boats’ and ‘axe the tax’ do the LNP coalition have anything amounting to a policy vision to take to the next election?