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.”


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Peter Fray
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