On January 17, 2014, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, reported that Australian vessels had entered Indonesian territorial waters during operations conducted in association with Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB).
On January 21, 2014, terms of reference were given for an internal review to be conducted by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) and the Australian Defense Force (ADF) into these incursions.
On February 19, 2014, the review found that Australian ships had violated Indonesian territorial waters six times between December 1, 2013, and January 20, 2014, as part of border security operations. However “each incursion was inadvertent and occurred as a result of miscalculation of Indonesian maritime boundaries by Australian crews.”
Friday, March 21, the Senate began an inquiry into the six “inadvertent” incursions by the Australian Navy into Indonesian waters.
Appearing before the hearing was a panel of senior Operation Sovereign Borders personnel: Michael Pezzullo (CEO ACBPS), Rear Admiral Noonan (Commander Border Protection), Martin Bowles (Immigration Department Secretary) and Lieutenant General Angus Campbell (Commander OSB).
It would appear that on only two occasions did the panel actually supply information in response to questions asked of them during the hearing. All other requests for information were declined on the grounds of public interest immunity and operational sensitivity. Public interest immunity is a rule of evidence that operates to limit the admission of evidence in legal proceedings where its disclosure would be against the public interest. Whilst the Senate has the power to demand documents, the government can argue not to reveal information under public interest immunity.
Claiming public interest immunity, the panel refused to answer whether any of the six vessels in question turned off their navigation tracking devices during their incursion into Indonesian territorial waters, and they also failed to respond when asked whether naval vessels turned off their navigation lights during the incursions as reported by asylum seekers.
The government claims that the answers to the questions raised in the Senate hearing, and by the media at numerous press briefings, would give information to the people smugglers that could result in negative consequences for our defense personnel and our national security.
The government believes that disclosure of such operational information, which includes, but is not limited to, ‘on-water’ tactics, training procedures, operational instruction, specific incident reports, intelligence, posturing and deployment of assets, timing and occurrence of operations, and identification of individual attempted voyagers, would prejudice current and future operations, put people at risk who are involved in our operations, and unnecessarily cause damage to Australia’s national security, defence and international relations. Scott Morrison
Consequently, the Senate hearing and the Australian public were only informed that the ability by OSB to track vessels was “not uniformly continuous”. Martin Bowles, Immigration Department Secretary, later clarified that the OSB response to the tracking of vessels was a general response to all operational matters.
However, the implication that tracking of naval assets is generally “not uniformly continuous” appears to be in conflict with the findings of the internal review.
Had headquarters staff implemented appropriate control measures, informed by authoritative information on Indonesian maritime boundaries, the normal post activity reporting and checks would have detected the incursions as they occurred. This did not occur. The appropriate controls were not put in place by the relevant headquarters.
Whilst the government has conceded that Australian boats did enter Indonesian territorial waters, the internal review found that all the ships did so as a result of mistakes in navigational calculations. Indonesian naval intelligence reported that Australian ships came within seven nautical miles of the Indonesian coast, an incursion of five nautical miles over territorial boundaries.
In the current era, navigation equipment to determine the position of a ship is very advanced. Therefore, it is not reasonable if it is said to be unintentional or not knowing. Indonesian navy spokesman Commodore Untung Suropati
The Indonesian archipelago and the archipelagic baseline [the formal name for Indonesia’s maritime boundary] is well known to the Australian navy and well known to commanders and senior officers. It’s part of the training we all get. Lieutenant Commander Learoyd (former Border Protection Commander)
The review did find that Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Commanding Officers, “Had received professional training…[but] their Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) counterparts, who are trained for operations inside the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), had not received this training as it applied to the Indonesian archipelago.”
Various reports indicate that three of the incursions were by two navy frigates, HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Stuart, and at least one customs vessel was involved in the other three incursions.
Whilst inadequacies in OSB processes were identified, the review still found that the specific crews and commanders were responsible for each of the incursions. Michael Pezzullo (CEO ACBPS) told the Senate inquiry that the conduct of individual naval officers was being reviewed.
Without questions being answered, without transparency from our government, it is hard to believe that all of those incursions were the result of calculation errors. Indonesian navy intelligence, asylum seekers’ GPS data and statements by asylum seekers all place naval vessels between 7 to 8 nautical miles from Indonesia’s coast on more than one occasion. The internal report and naval sources agree that the naval frigates would be equipped and the commanders trained to identify such a massive incursion.
Establishing the ships’ positions is key to accepting whether their incursions did in fact result from calculation error or whether Indonesia’s claim is correct. Whilst OSB vessels may not have been uniformly tracked by Rear Admiral Noonan and others does not mean they weren’t tracked by the Australian Maritime Security Centre in Canberra. In statements to the Senate inquiry, Noonan identified OSB had three command facilities from which assets could be monitored including the Australian Maritime Security Operations Centre (AMSOC) in Canberra.
The Australian Maritime Security Operations Centre in Canberra conducts 24-hour monitoring, co-ordination and communications support for all offshore protection activities. Communications, intelligence gathering and analysis, and satellite technology, allow co-ordination of the maritime surveillance and response capability. Border Protection Command
It would be extraordinary if OSB assets were not monitored unless there was a reason they should not be. The questions as to whether they turned off navigational tracking devices and their navigational lights are pertinent in determining the integrity of OSB and those in charge of it.
Internationally we are looking like fools and liars and our policies appear cruel. Australian and international media hold our navy and defense personnel to question and they have no avenue to defend themselves or clarify their actions. The Official Secrets Act binds them whilst Scott Morrison and senior OSB personnel claim public interest immunity.
It is difficult to understand how disclosure regarding naval positioning and navigational lights of previous incursions could endanger our personnel or inform people smugglers of future operations. The statements that OSB command is not continually monitoring its assets, and that OSB vessels navigational capability appears so poor that they can get within visual sight of Indonesian landfall and not know they have miscalculated, appears more likely to encourage people smugglers to keep the boats coming than to deter them. Our relationship with Indonesia is such that it is mobilising its defense forces along its borders.
In what way is it not in the Australian public’s interest to answer these questions?