It’s been a while since Crikey provided an update on the relentless spread of the secrecy attaching to “Operation Sovereign Borders”. We can now reveal that it extends to dictionaries, maps and equipment safety reports, with the government invoking its “on-water” claim of immunity from public accountability to shield anything that might shed any light on its activities.

However, in a series of answers to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee from February estimates — delivered, in the time-honoured fashion of all governments, just days before the next estimates hearings are to commence — the Immigration and Customs departments have provided a couple of fragments of information on the conduct of OSB’s anti-asylum seeker efforts, while seeking to extend its shield to accountability even further.

The government refused to define to the committee the difference between “OSB patrols” and “OSB tactical missions” to the committee, claiming “the nature of Operation Sovereign Borders ‘missions’ and ‘patrols’ is subject to the extant Public Interest Immunity Claim”. The claim of immunity has previously extended from “on-water” matters to such off-water matters as what training navy personnel now receive, whether naval vessels had GPS devices and even the public statements of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. And secrecy now extends not merely to the training provided to personnel, but the evaluations of whether the equipment they are using is safe. The government insisted:

“The disclosure of risk assessments of the equipment and systems issued to Australian personnel would require detailed descriptions of their characteristics and operation. Disclosure would prejudice the safety of personnel conducting on-water operations and cannot be released.”

It also refused to provide maps showing Indonesian territorial waters, with Customs insisting it “is not a maritime charting authority” and if the Senate wanted to see such maps “these can be found on the United Nations website” — a website that navy and and Customs personnel were evidently unable to access when they inadvertently invaded Indonesian waters six times over summer.

However, the government did de facto admit that it uses pepper spray, in the course of turning asylum seeker boats around or forcing asylum seekers into boats for dispatch to Indonesia. In response to a question from Labor defence spokesman Stephen Conroy about how often pepper spray has been used by Australian personnel, the government coyly replied:

“Personal Defence Equipment is employed during the conduct of all boardings at sea. Personal Defence Equipment includes, but is not limited to, gloves, helmets and vests.”

The government also revealed that its vessels update OSB headquarters at least every four to six hours and may do so more frequently “as operational circumstances dictate”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey