Abbott heading for a clash

Young men and women join the Royal Australian Navy for a variety of reasons: to fight for their country against its enemies, to learn a trade, to see the world, in the hope of adventure, or even to experience what Winston Churchill described as the tradition of "rum, sodomy and the lash."

But it is a safe bet that none of them enlist in the hope of being ordered to turn leaky Indonesian fishing boats full of the wretched of the Earth back across the seas they have already braved rather than conduct them the much shorter distance to Australian territory.

Quite apart from the obvious dangers such a course poses for both the hapless asylum seekers and the navy personnel who may well be called upon to risk their lives if the desperate boat people decide to sabotage their vessels rather than attempt the return journey, there will always be a feeling that this is not what they signed up for. The defence of Australia was never - at least until now - supposed to involve using violence against those who not only pose no threat, but are actually pleading for help.

And by doing so they would also be breaking the oldest and most venerable law of the sea: the first duty of sailors is to rescue those in danger, irrespective of whether they be friend or foe. To refuse to do so - in fact to send them into deeper peril - would be a violation of the ultimate moral code, as well as being a clear breach of international law.

So it is hardly surprising that the navy is less than enthusiastic about Tony Abbott's latest plan to end what he describes (hysterically) as "the crisis in Australia's border protection." The central plank is for the navy to turn back all - not some, but all - craft bearing asylum seekers to Indonesia. Given that the Indonesians have stated bluntly that they are happy to take back their own crew members but they regard the asylum seekers as Australia's responsibility, this will presumably leave the hapless victims to drift until they founder.

Since they are unlikely to accept that outcome, the Australians will be faced with a choice: continue to repel them in accordance with Abbott's policy, risking sabotage, mayhem and the inevitable loss of life, or do what they have in the past-escort the boats to Christmas Island, arrest the crew and deliver the asylum seekers for detention and eventual processing, knowing that about nine out of 10 of them will be found to be genuine refugees and therefore entitled to protection under international law.

Abbott says that he would expect the navy to obey orders - the boats are to be turned back, no ifs and no buts. Sailors who refused to co-operate would presumably lay themselves open to a charge of mutiny against the Australian government, which might be better than being charged with breaking international law and possible crimes against humanity, for which, as we have known since Nuremberg, "I was only obeying orders" is no defence.

The policy has been condemned by naval personnel, lawyers and foreign affairs experts who have warned that apart from its dangers and illegalities, it would irrevocably sour Australia's always delicate relations with Indonesia, our nearest neighbour and our most important diplomatic link to ASEAN and through it to the whole of Asia.

Abbott's immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, has defended it, but without any great enthusiasm. Abbott's deputy and shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, and his shadow Defence Minister, David Johnson, have maintained deafening silence. The policy has been dismissed by former naval chief Chris Barrie as both illegal and unworkable, and denounced by others as silly, callous and possibly homicidal.

So how did Abbott come up with it and why does he persist with it? Well, simply to show he's hairy chested; he has balls while Julia Gillard self-evidently does not.

Note the timing; when Abbott announced his brainwave, Morrison was supposedly in discussion with Gillard's Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, to try and find a compromise which would allow off-shore processing of asylum seekers - the policy supposedly espoused by both sides - to be implemented.

Bowen was indeed prepared to compromise; he offered to reopen Nauru, in spite of advice that it would not act as an effective deterrent to the people smugglers a second time around, and of what (he revealed later) were exorbitant cost estimates for refurbishing and running the place. He even suggested resurrecting the cruel and inhumane device of Temporary Protection Visas, the form of psychological torture whereby even those found to be genuine refugees were prevented from enjoying the rights of normal citizens for an indefinite period. Bowen put TPVs on the table even though they had proved to have disastrous unexpected consequences: those unable to seek reunion with their families, or even overseas visiting rights, persuaded wives and children to follow them through the asylum seeker route, adding greatly to the numbers risking their lives on the voyage.

Bowen was prepared to take on policies which he knew to be at best pointless and at worst positively dangerous in the cause of bipartisanship. Morrison, however, was prepared to concede nothing: Abbott's way or no way. He knew Bowen could not and would not surrender totally, and was therefore content to let the impasse continue and blame the government. But since that made him look both stubborn and cynical, and reinforced the general feeling that the opposition was so obsessed by the thought of power that it had forgotten policy altogether, Abbott decided that he had to do produce something positive - anything to prove that he was not really the black hole of negativity the government was successfully portraying.

So 'Stop the Boats!' morphed into 'Turn Back the Boats!' with no serious thought of either context or consequences. Illegal, unworkable, silly, callous and possibly homicidal; also thoroughly nasty at every level. But not negative - no one can accuse him of that. Action Man is back. Or should that be Stupefaction Man?

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