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On Line Opinion 28.1.14

Australia has a problem. The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott and the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, have taken Australia down a path from which there are only two outcomes, further aggression and confrontation with Indonesia or retreat.

Retreat would amount to a domestic political defeat for Abbott and Morrison but lead to an improvement in relations Indonesia. Further aggression would continue to undermine the relationship with Indonesia and might spread into the region.

Abbott has displayed and deployed characteristics at odds with his image as a conservative intellectual. His statements on international issues appear to lack thoughtful consideration. Why has he deployed an analogy of war to justify censorship?

Abbott appears not to care about nurturing the delicate relationship with Indonesia. The diplomatic subtleties and nuances required to maintain and build that relationship have been sacrificed to his flawed domestic agenda of turning back the boats.

Morrison has proven a willing attack dog. His anger and downright nastiness were on public display on ABC TV, on 22 January, in his defence of Australian Navy personnel alleged to have burnt the hands of asylum seekers.

His failure to address the media on issues of national concern is an affront to Australian democracy. Operational requirements are said to be the basis for this, however that requirement has been allowed to slide when faced with allegations that test his veracity.

The Indonesians are right to question the honesty of Morrison’s response to claims that Australian naval vessels breached their maritime boundary. Morrison and the erstwhile head of the task force overseeing so called boarder security, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, took us for fools when they sold the line that the vessels had inadvertently crossed into Indonesia waters. It was also a slur against the navy and naval personnel, backed by Campbell.

The navy is in possession of some very sophisticated equipment to make sure vessels know exactly where they are at any moment in time. In addition the training of sea going personnel, particularly navigators, is rigorous. Australian blue water sailors are unlikely to be impressed with Morrison’s clumsy and mendacious defence. The aggression behind his defence gave an impression that he might have issued the orders.

What is Campbell’s role? It is Morrison that appears to be running the show. It is his head that pops up in the media to defend the less salubrious aspects of the illegal operation being run against asylum seekers, when they become public knowledge in Australia from Indonesian sources. Campbell appears to have been put in the position to give Defence Force legitimacy to a crass political undertaking.

In defending the navy from charges of torture, Morrison sought, in the crudest of terms, to demonise asylum seekers. I listened to white South African politicians demonise black South Africans in order to deflect criticism from what apartheid was imposing. Many of those politicians were also self confessed devout Christians. Why is it that the Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, defended allegations of torture against asylum seekers by sailors involved in Indonesian border transgressions as part of Operation Sovereign Border?

As it is the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, announced on 23 January that the Australian Government would co-operate with the Indonesian investigation into allegations that Australian Navy personnel engaged in acts of torture against asylum seekers under their protection.

Until that agreement was given Australia was in danger of tacitly accusing the Indonesian Government of lying in terms of the information and allegations that had been put into the public domain as a result of the investigations taking place and the findings to date. And in light of the public statements made so far in defence of naval personnel by Abbott, Morrison, Bishop and Griggs, prior to any findings of fact, how will they react to adverse findings?

Abbott said recently in Sri Lanka that under certain circumstances torture is justified. He has also said that he would accept the word of an Australian sailor over that of a person who sought to enter Australia illegally (he was referring to asylum seekers).

It is not as if the Navy and the ADF have a perfect record. Griggs will not have forgotten the unedifying farce of the inquiries into the sinking of HMAS Voyager by HMAS Melbourne. He will be aware of issues of sexual harassment in the Navy dating back fifty years and covered up until recent times and he will be aware of conduct unbecoming on HMAS Ballarat last year. The Army has also had its share of scandal particularly during the war in Vietnam and also shares a history of bullying and sexual harassment.

Sailors and soldiers under pressure can behave badly, particularly if leadership is weak or lacking.

Having failed to defend the seamanship of his sailors against the nonsense put about by Morrison and Campbell, is Griggs jumping to the blind defence of his sailors a ploy to deflect his lack of leadership on the more basic question of defending their professional competence. Griggs hasn’t long to go in the job, surely he should consider retiring with pride. He needs to find some moral courage. A starting point might be to assert himself over the operational use of his vessels before the Indonesians start firing at them.

The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, needs to place distance between himself and Abbott. Together with the Opposition Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek, he should visit Indonesia and seek to repair the damage being wrought by Morrison and Abbott. They might begin by addressing the issue of the joint processing of refugees.

Indonesia would genuinely welcome good relations with Australia, but despite their inane statements that all is well with the relationship, Abbott and Morison are doing everything to wreck it.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.