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Operation Secretive Bureaucrats: it just keeps expanding

The cancer of Operation Sovereign Borders is extending into ever more absurd areas — including public statements of Scott Morrison himself.

The secrecy surrounding Operation Sovereign Borders continues to spread from “on-water operations” into other, increasingly absurd areas, and now appears to include Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s own words.

Most of the top officials of OSB, including Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell and the heads of Customs and Immigration, appeared on Friday before the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inquiry into the repeated breaches of Indonesian sovereignty by OSB vessels. The government has issued a five-page declassified version of an internal report that found the breaches had occurred due to incorrect calculation of the Indonesian archipelagic baseline. Customs chief executive Mike Pelluzzo repeatedly referred the committee to the publicly available report in answer to questions.

The government insists its prohibition on revealing anything that happens “on water” is a request of Campbell himself, even though Morrison flagged censorship on boat arrivals before the election. However, at estimates in February the “on-water” prohibition metastasised into a prohibition on anything that “may be used on water” such as training. On Friday, the tumour spread further, into ever more improbable areas.

First, Campbell, Pezzullo and Immigration head Martin Bowles refused to say whether Australian vessels participating in OSB were equipped with GPS tracking devices to know where they were, declaring that information was too sensitive. That produced extended wrangling and, at one stage, what Labor Senator Stephen Conroy called an “unbelievably helpful” distraction by Pezzullo on what boat hulls were made of. The Secret of the GPS yielded such rich exchanges as:

CHAIR: Are there vessels that do not have the basic function of GPS?
BOWLES: We cannot go into capability issues of specific vessels.
CHAIR: You cannot tell me whether or not we have GPS on vessels that are in the Royal Australian Navy?
BOWLES: That is not what I said.
CHAIR: What is it that you said?
BOWLES: I said we are not going to go into the capability of our vessels. It is a sensitive issue from a security perspective.

What officials did appear to concede is that the exact location of Australian boats wasn’t known to their onshore superiors at all times because captains might turn off GPS systems in order to avoid detection, although Campbell tried to throw the committee off by talking, Kevin Rudd-like, of the “periodicity of reporting”. Moreover, the use of other “security technology” like satellite imaging and electronic surveillance was also off-limits to the committee, as was whether Australian vessels turned their lights off during operations.

Also off-limits was whether the Indonesian government and armed forces have been given more information about the breaches of their sovereignty than the Australian public. This induced some exotic dancing from the officials. Bowles insisted conversations with Indonesia were confidential, but then stated outright and plainly that they had not been given more information than what Parliament had. Then Pezzullo had to correct Bowles:

It was stated — and it has not been addressed, because my colleagues would not necessarily be in a position to address it — that ‘it might be that the Parliament knows less’. There are going to be some matters of a bipartisan character, where classified briefings are given to both sides, the government and the opposition, and if you take that as being …”

At which point Conroy leapt on him. Pezzullo was admitting that the Indonesian government had more information on the incursions than was publicly available, but trying to claim that confidential briefings to Labor’s shadow immigration minister Richard Marles counted as “the Parliament”, meaning Bowles was kinda sorta right in insisting the Indonesians didn’t know more than us.

… if a minister says something and his departmental secretary doesn’t hear it, can it be truly said to have happened?”

Each of those instances could probably, vaguely, be defended as either matters for diplomacy or operational matters, if one accepts that the presence of GPS equipment and lights on a modern naval vessel is the sort of sensitive “battlespace” detail that people smugglers might prize. But the OSB obsession with secrecy became downright surreal when officials refused to even accept that Morrison had publicly stated last week that “we turn boats back where it is safe to do so, and we are doing it in a way which ensures that it’s safe”.

First Bowles cast doubt on whether Morrison had said those words, given he personally had not heard it, saying “if the minister said that” — he didn’t listen to 2GB, where Morrison had said it, he pointed out. Then Pezzullo suggested it was Conroy’s interpretation of Morrison’s words, telling him “it is not “turn back when safe to do so” or “tow back”. “They are verbs that you are introducing.” The three wise monkeys, it seemed, preferred that Conroy not use Morrison’s own words, but the term “activities”.

Better yet, Bowles came up with a novel reason to ignore his own minister’s words, telling Conroy “you are talking about things that the minister may have said subsequently”. That is, Morrison’s description (if, indeed, he said it) somehow only applied prospectively, not retrospectively, to OSB “activities”, despite Morrison specifically stating that the policy had already been effective. Bowles explained to Conroy that he preferred “that when you are talking to the officials that we use a different language” than the one his own minister used.

OSB has thus raised new, fundamental questions of bureaucratic epistemology: if a minister says something and his departmental secretary doesn’t hear it, can it be truly said to have happened?

But there was one issue on which playing silly buggers and word games has potentially significant consequences: the safety of asylum seekers forced into lifeboats by OSB personnel and sent back toward the Indonesian coast. Given Australian vessels were not permitted to approach closer than 12 miles to the Indonesian baseline, and that boats should only be turned back when safe to do so, committee members pursued the issue of whether it was assumed 12 miles was a safe distance for the lifeboats to traverse, and at what point the safety of asylum seekers in lifeboats was no longer the responsibility of Australian authorities.

Eventually Conroy put Campbell on the spot, asking:

General Campbell, as the commander of this operation, do you consider that you have no responsibility for persons who were once in your custody, after the 12-mile limit?”

Campbell refused to reply, insisting secrecy applied. Conroy pushed the issue:

Operation Sovereign Borders ends at some point, and I am asking about after the end. You cannot claim a blanket public interest immunity on something that is not covered by Operation Sovereign Borders.”

Bowles then chimed in. In spite of his strenuous efforts to avoid saying anything at all, Bowles summed things up eloquently:

If it has ended,” he said, “they are somewhere else and they are not our responsibility.”

Quite.

31
  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I just hope this government has the magnanimity of spirit to appreciate what these precedents they’re setting now are going to mean when the public stops listening to their studied ignorance on these matters and votes them out - and Labor gets a chance to use them?

  • 2
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Operation Secret Squirrels”.

  • 3
    Jimmyhaz
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    This is like an episode of Yes, Minister.

    Is this government going to end up like the US republican’s, where the things the say and do are so ridiculous that satire becomes impossible?

  • 4
    4567
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Hold on…is this first dog without the cartoons?

  • 5
    Stuart Coyle
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    You wouldn’t turn off GPS to avoid detection. A GPS receiver does not need to transmit in order to work, it receives signals from satellites. Any sailor with an iPhone has a GPS receiver…

  • 6
    graybul
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    This whole episode ie “Sovereign Borders” is a disgrace, despicable and an absolute affront to both Parliament and the Australian People! Klewso is so right . . precedents have been set and future Governments/Public Servants accountabilities will no longer apply. The values of the Australian peoples are being destroyed before our eyes!

  • 7
    Charlene Smith
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    My goodness, I feel like I’m reading ‘Catch 22’ with that exchange between the Chair and Bowles.

  • 8
    TheFamousEccles
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Bowles explained to Conroy that he preferred “that when you are talking to the officials that we use a different language” than the one his own minister used.”

    Huh?

    OSB has thus raised new, fundamental questions of bureaucratic epistemology: if a minister says something and his departmental secretary doesn’t hear it, can it be truly said to have happened?”

    It can now be claimed without fear of contradiction that Sir Humphrey Appleby has stepped over from the realm of fiction into dismaying reality.

  • 9
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Stuart Coyle, I was going to say that too, but think (hope) what is being referred to is the automatic periodic transmission of GPS fixes to central command & control.

  • 10
    David Hand
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Laugh or cry if you like but these awkward exchanges are taking place in an environment where disclosure of information makes stopping the boats more difficult. It is in the ALP / Greens interest to make stopping the boats difficult, hence all this pressure in favour of disclosure.

    So vagueness about whether or not Australian naval vessels have GPS is designed to stop the questions that inevitably follow - such as how the GPS is used and then we are into the operational tactics of OSB.

    Likewise the question about OSB’s accountability for asylum seekers’ safety once they for within the 12 mile limit of Indonesia. If OSB is accountable then they must be able to go in. But if they’re not accountable then measures they take within that zone to keep asylum seekers safe shouldn’t be broadcast on the ABC for people smugglers to subvert.

    The sad fact is that Crikey and most of its subscribers are passionately opposed to stopping the boats so attacking the secrecy of operational tactics is expected here irrespective of its destructive potential on the expressed will of the vast majority of Australians.

  • 11
    Juffy
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Ahh, suddenly it all makes sense. OSB = Operation Silly Buggers.

  • 12
    JMNO
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    This calls urgently for a satirical telly program. Plenty of other candidates for sketches as well - red tape for one

  • 13
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Don’t send that OSB lot complete with GPS and their command to the Southern Indian Ocean looking for the missing aircraft. As is quite clear OSB command complete lack of understanding on how GPS works will certainly ensure they get lost as well.

  • 14
    rhonaj
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Jimmyhaz
    Courtesy Tom Lehrer “Satire died when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize” Please forgive me if I have misquoted.

  • 15
    AR
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Who is this PELLUZZO character - another figment of a fevered Immigration Minster’s mind? Or did you mean PEZZULLO? You know, the Customs CEO whose brother Fabio was convicted of corruption at the airport and resigned from the Service?

  • 16
    Draco Houston
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    [in dawe voice] the drownings have been towed beyond the environment

  • 17
    Tyger Tyger
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    It’s a “sad fact” when not everyone agrees with you, David Hand@10? Yours must be a mournful existence.

  • 18
    CML
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 2:19 am | Permalink

    Bernard, I couldn’t believe what I was reading in your article! Is this sort of exchange actually happening in our federal parliament? The mind boggles!!
    The lunatics really are in charge of the asylum!!!

  • 19
    R. Ambrose Raven
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    As most readers would I think agree, this contempt for good policy as well as for accountability will be and are being applied to us in most areas of government. Here, this contempt specifically draws on the confected moral outrage about “economic refugees”, “deaths at sea”, and “people-smugglers”.

    Morwell’s 13,000 people were largely ignored during a coal mine fire that burnt for several weeks from the 9th of February. Only after 17 days did health authorities warn of the dangers of the extreme levels of smoke and ash particles shrouding the town. They never received any meaningful assistance from the state government, let alone the French corporation that owns the mine.

    A few senior health bureaucrats eventually appeared in Morwell’s main street, gave out some leaflets, made a few vague comments, then when the residents grew angry at such indifference, snapped that they weren’t going to answer questions shouted at them in the street.

    A later meeting with the Premier was held indoors, by invitation only, with the rabble kept out by the police.

    In contrast to the ostentatious appearances by Anna Blight during the Queensland floods, or Abbott’s ostentatious fire-fighting, politicians took care to avoid a fire arising from the removal of fire protections allowed as a result of self-regulation, especially as it was in a disused part of a coal mine that was feeding the most polluting power station in Australia.

  • 20
    R. Ambrose Raven
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    One specific result of the post-1984 destruction of what was an excellent, independent public service is a culture of fear and conformity in what passes for today’s “public service”, both Federal and State. It is now essentially an amorphous collection of contractors and job-specific employees who of necessity are focussed on protecting and advancing their personal interests. Obviously that greatly affects the quality of its decisions and its advice to ministers, so does cause bad strategic decisions to be made even when the minister in question may well have been willing to accept a more enlightened option had their advisers been willing to let it approach the minister’s desk. Whistleblowers are therefore punished with particular viciousness.

    Further, it enters into every minute of every day of every public servant’s life; every thought and every decision that they make, that the “public service” and the individuals in it are absolutely and totally the servant of the Minister.

    Invariably, though, the Minister is grossly inadequate for such a dictatorial role by virtue of inexperience, transience, incompetence, immaturity, preoccupations, and unprofessionalism. Border Generalissimo-MP Morrison is an especially ugly example.

    We pay that cost; in every sector, we have a system that is far worse, far less fulfilling, and far more costly than it could be.

    Mainstream media bias has done much to drive the asylum-seeker neurosis, yet pretends to be a neutral medium of information.

  • 21
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Too true Tyger - when “joining the dots” it’s a good idea to follow the numbers, otherwise you could come up with any image you like.

  • 22
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    If a scriptwriter turned the above antics into an episode for ‘Yes Minister’ it would be rejected on the grounds of implausibility.

  • 23
    Blair Martin
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    What an Applebian response from Martin Bowles!

    First Bowles cast doubt on whether Morrison had said those words, given he personally had not heard it, saying “if the minister said that” — he didn’t listen to 2GB,” and

    Better yet, Bowles came up with a novel reason to ignore his own minister’s words, telling Conroy “you are talking about things that the minister may have said subsequently”. “

    As Sir Humphrey once remarked when questioned about a matter of some sensitivity, “I said “I understood it to be true”, I might have misunderstood it.”

    Baffle, obfuscate and deny; the methodology of OSB. Clearly only David Hand (#10) is the only person outside this disgraceful charade who wants to believe what the “three wise monkeys” tell the world.

  • 24
    Liamj
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Surely once upon a time Bowles and Campbell must have had some affection for this country, yet now they are perpetrating this obscene farce upon it. Its not going to get any easier guys, repent today and perhaps you can be rehabilitated.

  • 25
    David Hand
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    No no no Blair,
    I’m not the only person who trusts what the OSB group is doing. I’m the only person who post in the Crikey Crypt who trusts them.

    After all, this is a telephone box-sized ghetto of leftie mutual comfort. These threads would be so boring if it was an incessant stream of Abbott hating vitriol. On second thoughts, it actually is an incessant stream of Abbott hating vitriol.

  • 26
    R. Ambrose Raven
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    That “incessant stream of Abbott hating vitriol” simply proves how fair we are. Abbott deserves “an incessant stream of Abbott hating vitriol”.

  • 27
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    DAVID HAND: It isn’t Tony Abbott I hate, it’s the incompetent fools that voted for him and his bunch of mediocrities, that I hate.

  • 28
    David Hand
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    So you hate me then Venise

  • 29
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I know “Abbott hating” isn’t as much fun for some, as “legitimate” “Rudd baiting” or “Gillard gutting”, but let’s face it, when Abbott and most of the rest of the Coal-ition took to the lawns of Parliament House, in solidarity of such sentiment, to open that Pandora’s Box, joining in with that Tea Party the “Ditch the Bitch” celebration, to have their photos taken, supporting that sort of sentiment, who could have guessed that those morons of the Left, would be able to emulate such - let alone be better at it than that Conservatism?
    Now it’s almost tool late to - because we all know, that despite this call for a “kinder and more polite politic (while Abbott is in government)”, as soon as Labor wins power, the Born to Rule will be back in the gutter, trying to reclaim what they think is Rightfully theirs - that the Left is not entitled too - by hook or by crooks?
    Paint it any way you like, personally I don’t hate him.
    I hate what he represents - what has been normalised - the greedy, spiteful intolerance being nurtured, for politics - and the way he’s been indulged to achieve that.

  • 30
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    DAVID HAND: To be frank I don’t think about you at all.

  • 31
    David Hand
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Venise, I voted Liberal. Therefore though you don’t think about me personally, you see me as, how did you put it? an incompetent fool who you hate.

    Is that a better description?

    Maybe it’s better to drop the words “about you at all” from your last post. You fitted right in at the march in March.

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