Operation Sovereign Borders

The Coalition has today responded to Kevin Rudd’s PNG agreement on asylum seekers with its own announcement of “Operation Sovereign Borders”.

The dramatic-sounding announcement, by immigration spokesman Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, almost entirely relates to restructuring in Canberra, with a new three-star general appointed to lead a $10 million “taskforce” involving agencies already dealing with the asylum seeker issue.

Three-star generals are at the level of service chiefs; the Chief of the Defence Force, currently General David Hurley, is a four-star general. A new three-star general would thus effectively be the establishment of a new defence service, albeit with few resources beyond Canberra bureaucrats, and reporting directly to the immigration minister, rather than reporting to the Chief of the Defence Force.

This new military structure for immigration would mark a departure from existing Defence arrangements, in which service chiefs report to the Chief of the Defence Force, who reports to the defence minister as part of a “diarchy” structure with the secretary for defence.

The Coalition has committed, within 100 days of being elected, to:

  • Establish an “Operation Sovereign Borders” HQ and “Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Taskforce”;
  • Finalise “protocols” for turning boats back “where it is safe to do so”;
  • Increase capacity at offshore processing centres (presumably beyond the increases already scheduled by the government; and
  • Lease vessels “to relieve patrol vessels of passenger transfers”.

Funding for the leasing of vessels appears to have been omitted from the $10 million costing, unless the Coalition plans to use small craft to replace the navy vessels currently used to intercept asylum seeker boats.

The Coalition provided an organisation chart for the taskforce (below). However, it is not clear who would control naval vessels charged with intercepting asylum seeker vessels — the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Navy, reporting to the defence minister, or the new service chief, reporting to the immigration minister? According to the Coalition’s announcement, the Chief of the Defence Force will be asked to advise on a “command and control structure”. The taskforce also appears to replicate some of the functions of the Border Protection Command, which was established by the Howard government in 2005.

The Coalition announcement has the same cobbled-together, fix-it-later characteristics as Kevin Rudd’s PNG agreement announced last week (although at least the Coalition can claim it is in opposition). It has the clear intention of playing catch-up with Rudd’s dramatic declaration that no maritime arrival will ever be resettled here by offering a dramatic-sounding name and some reshuffling of the military brass to give the impression of significant change when the only significant change is a dramatic alteration of Australia’s well-established military chain-of-command. For the first time, a military service will be entirely responsible to a minister outside the Defence portfolio, and may even have control of military assets.

The establishment of a new service chief also raises the question of exactly what Australia’s defence force is failing to do at the moment that a new general would fix.

“The current multiplicity of agencies and reporting lines provides for conflicting strategies, disconnected systems, fractured accountability, inadequate information system, duplication, higher costs and turf wars,” the Coalition says. The new arrangements will send a message “to the people smugglers and their prospective passengers who must understand, from day one, that the rules have changed”.

Hopefully they read the Public Service Gazette.

Peter Fray

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