Ian McPhedran: Navy won’t turn back boats if lives at risk

Ian McPhedran: Navy won’t turn back boats if lives at risk

Naval patrol boats

No matter the political agenda, the Australian Navy will not tow boats back if lives are at stake. Ian McPhedran Source: Supplied

NAVY officers have mixed views about Tony Abbott’s plan to turn or tow people-smuggling boats back to Indonesia but one thing is not negotiable – the safety of lives at sea will take precedence over any shabby political or national interest test.

In other words, if there is even the slightest risk of danger to navy sailors or asylum seekers then navy skippers would disobey orders to invoke the “turn around or tow back” policy.

“No navy officer would allow anyone, be they people smuggler, illegal fisherman or even terrorist, to perish at sea,” one officer said.

In pursuing the political high ground, Abbott points to the success of the get-tough policy in earlier incarnations but he misses a very important point.

In the days when it appeared to work under John Howard, the Indonesian fishermen – who were paid much lower rates to smuggle people – valued their boats above all else.

Since then dozens of boats have been destroyed or lost and the quality of boats being used has fallen to such a level that no fishermen or smuggler cares whether or not the vessel sinks.

At the first sign of heavy-handedness from the Royal Australian Navy or Customs and Border Protection, the boat crews will disable or, worse, scuttle their boats – secure in the knowledge they will probably escape punishment and their human cargo will almost certainly be rescued and make it to Australia.

“Remember SIEV 36, the boat that was deliberately blown up killing asylum seekers and injuring Australian sailors, well all those people were granted refugee status,” one officer said. “If that had happened to a bus on land it would be regarded as terrorism.”

SIEV 36 was sabotaged in April 2009 near Ashmore Reef with the loss of five lives. Several sailors were decorated for their bravery during the incident.

Abbott is sending a clear message to Indonesian authorities that a Coalition government will not apply the same soft touch that Labor has on people smuggling.

Howard provided his political protege with a classic example of how to deal with the Indonesians during the East Timor crisis.

Howard cut up rough and the Indonesians, despite their tough talk, backed down.

Labor has gone for a softly, softly approach preferring the carrot to the stick but it has not worked and the Indonesians laugh at us as they take our $700 million-a-year in aid money and support and then allow the boats to leave their ports unhindered.

Meanwhile, we have three navy vessels, including a 3000-tonne survey ship, off Christmas Island full-time compared with one just a year ago.

Customs has its Bay class and other vessels patrolling closer to the mainland off Ashmore Reef.

As the biggest foreign policy emergency facing the nation drags on, Foreign Minister Bob Carr treads the world stage making diary notes in Tokyo and the Middle East, rubbing shoulders with diplomats and world leaders.

It is time for Carr and the government to get tough with the Indonesians and, if they are smart, they will not have to resort to the blunt instrument of warships.

There is plenty of diplomacy in $700 million and more than a decade of people-to-people links with the Australian military and federal police. Surely there is some credit there – if not, then what is the point of all the cash and effort, apart from an overseas jolly for the military and police?

Abbott is right to brush off questions about Indonesia’s response to his hardline approach.

Indonesia respects strong leadership.

However, he has also refused to say if his turn back the boats plan was mentioned to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during meetings with the Indonesian president last week.

“Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd are on the record supporting the policy of turning boats around back in 2002,” he said.

“And if it was right then, it can be right again in the future.”

Meanwhile, as the politicians bicker and score cheap political points, navy and customs boat crews will continue to risk their lives – launching inflatable rescue boats in high seas in the middle of the night – to save men, women and children who are merely the pawns at the mercy of the criminal smuggling syndicates.

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