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May 6, 2014

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.

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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.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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