The Intelligent Investor Growth Fund is listing on the ASX. Initial Offer now open

The opposition's leaky boat plan

When Australian Navy sailors boarded an asylum seeker boat known as SIEV 12 just before dawn on December 17, 2001, the already volatile situation on board the boat exploded.

When Australian Navy sailors boarded an asylum seeker boat known as SIEV 12 just before dawn on December 17, 2001, the already volatile situation on board the boat exploded.

Young men among the 133 passengers, realising the navy officers intended to send the boat back to Indonesia, tore down a tarpaulin and used parts of the boom to threaten members of the boarding party.

"At the same time, I saw flames coming from the fore part of the vessel ... [and] several [unauthorised arrivals] freely jumping over the side," a crew member on the interdicting vessel HMAS Leeuwin, Lieutenant Casey, said.

The passengers' protests were in vain. Under then prime minister John Howard's tough new asylum regime, boats were to be turned back. Three days later, the SIEV 12 was released near Indonesia, but not before four people had jumped overboard, three fires had been lit, a child held - though not thrown - over the side and the boat sabotaged twice. A child fell and suffered a fractured arm, one man doused himself in petrol and another threatened to slash his own throat.

Turning boats back has always been, quite simply, a nightmare of an operation to carry out - violent, traumatic and dangerous. Of the 12 times it was attempted during the Howard government's Operation Relex, only four attempts were successful.

It was difficult then, but some experts say it is even more problematic now.

Tony Abbott, however, is betting big that he will be able to revive the practice. Turning back the boats "where it is safe to do so" is the phrase he has uttered incessantly since becoming Opposition Leader. Stopping the boats, and hammering the government for the surge in boat people on its watch, underpins the Coalition's bid for government. The Coalition believes it will decide a slew of outer suburban seats, especially in western Sydney where the asylum seeker issue resonates strongly,

For the past three years, fanning fear over the boats has worked for the Coalition. But Kevin Rudd's return as Prime Minister and open denunciation of the policy by the Indonesian government are changing the debate.

What was once an unassailable political plus for the Coalition is now under challenge, starting with Rudd's assertion it risked conflict with Indonesia, a proposition that drew scorn from some commentators but nonetheless focused public attention on the policy and its pitfalls.

Labor argues that turning back wooden boats packed with their human cargo is dangerous and reckless and simply will not work. Tony Burke, the new Immigration Minister, said this week that people-smugglers learnt back in 2001 that all they needed to do was scuttle the boat, leaving the navy no choice but to rescue everyone on board.

"Once they worked out that Australia was not the sort of country that would ... leave people drowning in the ocean they knew that they could turn any circumstance into a safety at sea operation," he said. "From that moment, the Howard government stopped turning boats back."

This is flatly rejected by Coalition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison, who said: "The reason [the Howard government] stopped doing it was because the boats had stopped coming."

The figures appear to support Morrison. While there is little doubt international "push factors" have played a role - 2002 saw a 14 per cent drop in the global movement of asylum seekers - the fall in boat arrivals immediately after 2001 was extraordinary.

According to the federal parliamentary library, 5516 asylum-seekers arrived by boat in 2001. In 2002, the figure was one person.

Abbott, who often points to the Howard era as an argument for the election of a Coalition government, has repeatedly insisted, "it's been done before, it can be done again".

But can it? Whether it would work again is hard to judge because the Coalition refuses to reveal the detail of its plans, citing operational reasons.

Like any good military tactic, it won't work if the other side knows it is coming, the Coalition says, though their reticence also leaves voters at a disadvantage in weighing up the merits of the plan.

Broadly speaking, interdiction of a vessel means intercepting it at sea, boarding it, taking charge and steaming it back to the edge of Indonesia's territorial waters, 22 kilometres offshore. There, it will be left with enough fuel to get back to an Indonesian port but not enough to turn around and have another crack at going south. How much variation to that model - and therefore scope for "operational secrecy" - can there be?

It's near impossible to stop a crew sabotaging an engine. Anyone knows that putting sugar in a fuel tank will gum up the works. But that's a temporary form of sabotage. When boats were turned back before, the navy simply repaired sabotaged engines, sometimes spending days on board to do so.

Much more serious is the possible scuttling of boats. People smugglers are understood to put holes in the hulls of boats and then plug them with bungs that can be quickly removed to sink vessels that are entirely expendable.

But supporters of the turn-back policy say there are all sorts of clever ways to outfox the people smugglers. There is "infinite flexibility" to the navy's bag of operational tricks, according to Jim Molan, a former army general, and now a military commentator and supporter of turning back boats. But he won't say what they are.

Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James says people-smuggling operations have evolved and staying one step ahead is a matter of "perpetual measures and countermeasures".

At least one of the Coalition's ideas that he is aware of is "extremely imaginative and reasonably daring" - in a positive way - he says, though he won't explain further, saying it will lose its value as a surprise.

"Even if you can't turn all boats back, you've got to be able to bluff that you can," he said.

Indeed the signal it sends is the most important thing, advocates argue. Former foreign minister Alexander Downer said it was the timing and context of the tough approach that was so effective in 2001. "Howard's basic point was, people are not going to come to Australia this way. I'm just not going to allow it. That set the tone."

Philip Ruddock, immigration minister from 1996 to 2003, said that when asylum seekers were returned in 2001, they went looking for their money back from people smugglers, forcing the smugglers to "go to ground" and destroying their business.

But there are experienced heads who see it differently. Admiral Chris Barrie, who was Chief of the Defence Force when the Howard policies began, knows as much as anyone about the tactics of turning back boats. He says there is little operational secrecy at stake because people smugglers and passengers can always play their trump card of creating a dangerous situation and engaging Australia's obligations to protect the safety of life at sea.

"Operational detail I don't think matters much because the way the system will unfold is these guys will either simply sink boats or burn boats or do both when they're in the vicinity of something that might rescue them and that sort of obviates the whole thing," he says.

"I'm not saying it would never work. What I am saying is that a declared policy is going to invite people smugglers to act in ways which will make sure that policy can't work, and that is going to put people's lives at risk. That's what worries me about it."

None of the high-ranking current and former navy officers who've spoken out on the matter have said it can't be done. The current Chief of Navy, Ray Griggs, made headlines in late 2011 when he told a Senate hearing there were "risks involved in this whole endeavour" both to asylum seekers and navy members, but he stopped well short of saying it couldn't or shouldn't be done.

Vice-Admiral Chris Ritchie, Chief of the Navy from 2002 until 2005, said matter-of-factly that it had been done before and there is no reason it couldn't be done again "if the conditions are similar". "It is a risky business and it's not for you or I to say it's too risky - that's something for the government and the navy to decide."

Abbott in 2011 backed away from his original proposal of a prime ministerial hotline to navy vessels. He now says it's an operational decision for commanders to turn back boats "when it is safe to do so".

One navy commander, Richard Menhinick, famously disobeyed directions in 2001 and took all 154 asylum-seekers from an imperilled boat onto HMAS Warramunga. Writing later in an ethics manual for navy officers, Commodore Menhinick said the incident illustrated "how our sense of duty, our readiness to accomplish missions and follow direction and our conscience are in a complex web".

Still, there is lingering disquiet within the navy about the position in which navy commanders are left, with one former officer describing it as being "the meat in the sandwich".

Paul Barratt, a former secretary of the Department of Defence who was sacked by the Howard government, said the government would be putting navy commanders in difficult legal and moral territory.

"When people join the armed forces, they sort of put one hand on the Bible and the other in the air and say they'll do what they're told," Barratt said. "But this implies a contract with the government that the government won't go on to do things that are unlawful.

"So it's up to the government to make sure that it never puts these people in the invidious position that they have to decide between that oath and their understanding of international law."

The other outstanding question mark is Indonesia. The communique after Rudd met President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, last week stressed the "importance of avoiding unilateral actions which might jeopardise such a comprehensive regional approach and which might cause operational or other difficulties to any party" - a clear swipe at Abbott's policy.

But Morrison insists Australia needs only Indonesia's "acquiescence", not its agreement - a crucial difference in language. "I know for a fact that it was never an issue discussed between John Howard and the President of Indonesia," he says.

There is a strain of thought in Canberra's elite that says Australia will inevitably need to assert itself on the issue with respect to Indonesia, which they say is not doing all it can. Meanwhile, each side of politics is accusing the other of imperilling the relationship with Indonesia in a bid to score political points. And experts say we will be lucky to get another Indonesian president as patient and easy to deal with as SBY after the country holds elections next year.

Like his vow to repeal the carbon tax, Abbott's vehement promise to "stop the boats" is one on which his credibility now rests. He argues Labor essentially doesn't believe it can be done. Whether he is able to persuade voters that the figure of 17,202 - the number of boat arrivals in 2012 - can fall to zero is looming as his biggest challenge in the countdown to the election.

Join the Conversation...

There are comments posted so far.

If you'd like to join this conversation, please login or sign up here

Related Articles