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How Angus Campbell is undermining our regional relationships

Operation Sovereign Borders is now causing the very reputational damage that it purports to be protecting against.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s rejection of the effort by Indonesian’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to improve relations between the countries through an invitation to Jakarta this week represents the bizarre extent to which “Operation Sovereign Borders” now dictates the government’s foreign policy.

Bear in mind that the government’s asylum seeker policy is supposed to be wholly subordinate to foreign policy requirements. The senior bureaucrat in charge of the operation, Angus Campbell, has tried to justify the absurd lengths to which the government has gone to prevent the revelation of anything related to asylum seekers with an elaborate matrix of reasons:

Specifically, I am seeking to avoid a circumstance in which the following occurs: we give advantage to people smugglers; provide people smugglers with material that may be used to manipulate or confuse their prospective customers; we undermine regional relationships necessary to deal with this complex regional problem; or we endanger our people.”

Let’s look in particular at one of Campbell’s excuses for secrecy: he won’t give away any information about the operation because it may “undermine regional relationships necessary to deal with this complex regional problem”. Bear in mind that Campbell is running this operation partly as a military officer, in which capacity he commands military and Customs assets, and partly as a senior bureaucrat — Campbell is an experienced Prime Minister and Cabinet public servant — and yet he is purportedly permitted to make judgements not just about operational issues (what might advantage people smugglers, what might endanger Australian personnel) but diplomatic relationships with regional countries.

We’ve previously noted that Campbell’s obsession with secrecy has spread like a cancer into other areas of Immigration and Defence, yielding such Kafkaesque moments as a refusal to discuss anything that “may be used on water”, not just what happens “on water”, a nonsensical refusal to confirm that Australian vessels even have GPS tracking and a refusal to acknowledge that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison had made widely reported remarks about the operation.

Now Operation Sovereign Borders has undermined the most important relationship in dealing with the asylum seeker issue: that with Indonesia. Yudhoyono, who has endured considerable domestic criticism to maintain a strong relationship with successive Australian governments, had extended an opportunity for Abbott to start repairing the damage inflicted on the relationship since the Coalition government came to power. That damage is partly what Abbott himself had caused via his boat turn-back policy, most notably via the profoundly embarrassing repeated incursions into Indonesian waters, and that caused, through no fault of Abbott’s, by the unaccountable Australian Signals Directorate via its repeated efforts to spy on Indonesia, including economic espionage used to benefit American companies in a trade dispute with Indonesia.

Instead of seizing Yudhoyono’s brave gesture with both hands and endeavouring to restore relations before the President leaves office — to make way for a successor who will be far less interested in maintaining Jakarta-Canberra relations — Abbott had to spurn it because of Operation Sovereign Borders. Campbell’s operation is the very thing that is “undermining regional relationships necessary to deal with this complex regional problem”.

In true OSB style, however, the government is refusing to acknowledge that this is the case. The official line is that the Prime Minister couldn’t make the 36-hour trip to Jakarta yesterday because of the need to prepare the budget and manage the Commission of Audit report. Well, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann are the ones doing the heavy lifting of the budget, not Abbott. And most of Tony Shepherd’s error-ridden Fiscal Fantasy was dead on arrival last Thursday afternoon.

Doubtless if this issue is broached at budget estimates in a few weeks, Campbell will insist on maintaining his operational secrecy. It’s inappropriate for Parliament to be told anything that might “undermine regional relationships necessary to deal with this complex regional problem”. That task, apparently, is reserved for Operational Sovereign Borders itself.

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  • 1
    Jaybuoy
    Posted Tuesday, 6 May 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Not to mention the new process of aggregating returnees and towing them to Indonesia. If this is the new plan why don’t we take transferees off Manus and put them in the orange boats. It would probably be more humane…

  • 2
    Grumpy Old Sod
    Posted Tuesday, 6 May 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    While it is easy to blame an obsessively secretive bureaucrat for this problem it must be remembered that the buck stops with Abbott and his government, not Campbell as he can be either impelled by the government to open up or they can fire him.

  • 3
    tonyfunnywalker
    Posted Tuesday, 6 May 2014 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Well done Crikey — at last a revalation as to who is the puppet and who is the puppeteer of OSB. Either way its odium is of growing pungency as revalations of the Manus Riot are made public. It is evident that Campbell “cannot handle the truth” by refusing to release details and this infurating and frustrating both politicians in Jakarta and Canberra. To what end — the truth will out despite the intimidation of staff and refugees not to testify or release details. It demands a Royal Commission so that transparency is restored.

  • 4
    TheFamousEccles
    Posted Tuesday, 6 May 2014 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Jaybouy - Word!

  • 5
    Liamj
    Posted Tuesday, 6 May 2014 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    @ Grumpy - i don’t think anyone should be making excuses for Campbell. If he is given unconscionable orders his duty as a human being is to refuse them, whatever the consequences for his career. That he doesn’t shows that he is that most dangerous type of man, an armed syncophant in service to a idiot.

  • 6
    graybul
    Posted Tuesday, 6 May 2014 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Allegedly, ‘Politics is the Art of the Possible’. Over recent decades each side, Govt. and Opposition, has broadly interpreted that to mean lying to the Electorate is OK! In turn, led by the Shock Jocks, the Electorate has generally shown a level of tolerance towards political dishonesty.
    What is most remarkable . . is the PM and Cabinet’s ruthless introduction of National Security as a means of legitimizing the practice of non-accountability and employment of secrecy to avoid, deny access to information. In doing so, Govt has begun a process of changing parliamentary, social and cultural practice within Parliament, Military, Judiciary and Public Service. Security as a defence, now permeates conduct of Parliamentary Committees of Enquiry . . to the absurd level where the Australian Navy cannot comment on whether their ships employ GPS as a navigational aid!
    Is this where tolerance of lying has taken us?

  • 7
    MJPC
    Posted Wednesday, 7 May 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    @Liamj; valid comment however the Australian Military = Public Service in uniform courtesy of this latest debacle.
    Citizen Abbott and his merry crew are fast coming to a crashing halt on this, when the current indo Presidenmt stands down for the elections.
    It’s an even bet the new president will not be as complaint with/ or understanding of the shenanigans of sovereign borders.

  • 8
    Peter Morris
    Posted Wednesday, 7 May 2014 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    Well done Bernard - about time someone named Campbell’s behaviour for what it is. Yes, the buck does stop with Abbott and Morrison, but Campbell is more than a willing accomplice and is abusing the trust the Australian public normally accords the military for proper reasons of operational risk. His studied indifference to the cruelty meted by his operations on those already fleeing the violence of state terror is chilling to watch.

    Thank you for your excellent journalism.

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