Changing of the guard for border protection

Angus Campbell, the government's pick to head up border protection, is tall and thin, with angular features and a mild speaking voice.
By · 21 Sep 2013
Share this article
By ·
21 Sep 2013
Share this article
comments Comments
Angus Campbell, the government's pick to head up border protection, is tall and thin, with angular features and a mild speaking voice.

A thoroughly rounded warrior-scholar, he has commanded elite SAS forces, co-ordinated the nation's national security apparatus and earned a master's in international relations from Cambridge University. His friend and comrade, the retired Major General John Cantwell, describes him thus: "He's totally unflappable, very measured, very calm and well-respected."

He will need to be. On Thursday, the newly minted three-star commander took charge of the most flappable, least calm political issue of recent times.

At a short "pic fac" on Thursday - a PR contrivance in which very busy people spend several minutes making awkward, unclassified conversation for the cameras before the real work gets under way - General Campbell (pictured) replied to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's pep talk with the brief observation: "We have some work to do."

As the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, his workload boils down to the well-worn phrase, "stopping the boats". Unpacked, that means co-ordinating resources from 16 government agencies to implement the herculean list of pledges made by Tony Abbott in opposition. To name just some: turning boats back to Indonesia; expanding offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island; speeding up transfers from Christmas Island; deploying extra federal police to the region; leasing extra vessels to support maritime patrols; increasing aerial surveillance; buying boats from Indonesian fishermen; and paying bounties for information on people smugglers.

It is nothing less than a shock-and-awe campaign on people smuggling and comes on top of Kevin Rudd's desperate offshore processing and resettlement deal with Papua New Guinea, which has already prompted a drop of about half in the rate of boat arrivals.

Abbott vowed the government would get to work on day one, declaring: "The game is up." Morrison for his part has knuckled down, declining repeated interview requests and embarking on what the new government has promised would be methodical and steady governing.

Yet the many cogs of Angus Campbell's taskforce need to mesh with the regional diplomatic machinery to work, and that is where some oil is needed before much of his effort can begin. The lubricant will come primarily in the form of Abbott's planned visit to Jakarta at the end of the month.

Jakarta has kept a wary eye on the Coalition's plans since Abbott first floated his boat turn-back idea, which it says is a unilateral move threatening Indonesian sovereignty. MP Tantowi Yahya, the former host of Indonesia's Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, spoke for many in the political establishment when he branded the policy "offensive" and a threat to relations between the two countries.

The pledges to pay bounties to Indonesian villagers for information and buy fishing boats that may be used to ferry asylum-seekers has compounded the sense of grievance.

Some Defence sources say there is no operational reason why the Coalition could not order the next boat to be turned around, assuming the navy commander on the scene felt it could be done safely.

In reality, Indonesia's trenchant criticism of the idea means the government will have to tread cautiously. However slight the risk, it would be a disaster if Jakarta were to cancel Abbott's September 30 meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono out of pique over unilateralism by Canberra.

Campbell will stand on the coalface of that tricky politics. As one navy source put it: "Do you push [Australian] ships forward and have them sit just off the Indonesian line, turning boats back? How do you negotiate that with Jakarta? What are the legal issues? These are all the things he's going to have to deal with."

Defence insiders believe he was the stand-out candidate, saying he has learnt the Canberra system from his experience working within government as deputy national security adviser. "He's not political but he understands politics," one source said.

He will need all of that acumen to avoid becoming political, however. One decision he needs to make quickly is whether to continue informing the public when a boat arrives - a decision Morrison is leaving to him. To end Labor's policy of issuing media releases for every arrival would cause howls of outrage and leave the new government open to accusations of covering up bad news.

Border Protection Command staff were awaiting instructions this week on whether they were permitted to issue statements of boat arrivals. As of Friday, no boats had arrived since the new government was sworn in.

Then there will be resourcing issues. If the navy is going to carry out the "more forthright" interdictions promised this week, it will need more sailors. Crews have already spent too long at sea during the height of boat arrivals earlier this year, exceeding the benchmark 70 per cent of their operational time. It means the navy will need to take back some of the highly trained people it has loaned to Customs, which in turn means more people will need to be trained for Customs' ships.

There is also concern about the way the government went about militarising border protection for political purposes in the election campaign.

Neil James, of the Australian Defence Association, while praising the choice of Campbell, said there was unease in defence circles about having a military commander reporting directly to the Immigration Minister for what remains a civil law enforcement function. "If he's exercising military command, he can only report to the Minister for Defence, according to the Defence Act," he said.

Meanwhile, the government has reintroduced Howard-era temporary protection visas, under which refugee protection is reviewed after three years and people are denied family reunions. It is a measure of how jumbled asylum-seeker policy became under Labor that refugee advocates who loathe TPVs now see some upside in the Coalition's move. Migration agent Marion Le said whatever the faults of TPVs, they will at least allow people to work.

The tough policies introduced by the former Howard government had the effect of stopping the boats. This time around, even opponents of Abbott's measures acknowledge they can't fail to have an effect, such is the scale of the promises.

But refugee advocates say we are just pushing the problem away to other countries, to other, future, Australian governments and perhaps to future Angus Campbells.

Paul Power, of the Refugee Council of Australia, said: "The question is to what extent are asylum seekers going to be pushed back into Asia or pushed on to Pacific nations, and how are Australia's neighbours going to respond?"

"Because the core problem of finding a place of safety is not going to disappear for many people on the move."
Share this article
Keep on reading more articles from InvestSMART. See more articles
Join the conversation...
There are comments posted so far. Join the conversation, please login or Sign up.
Related Articles