Abbott's "tow backs" are a recipe for disaster

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Recent tragedies at sea further underline the recklessness of Tony Abbott's "tow back" policy, Lionel Paul Grant says the Coalition need to abandon their asylum seeker policies in light of these developments.

(Image by Bruce Keogh /

LAST WEEK, the Coalition announced that an Abbott Government would launch a military style anti-asylum seeker raid dubbed "Operation Sovereign Borders".

This comes less than a month after Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa stated to media, while in Australia, that he and the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono do not endorse the Coalition "tow back" policy.

"Operation Sovereign Borders" involves an increased naval presence to our north and would shake up responsibilities between various units of defence. The policy has been categorically repudiated by powerful voices in the defence community, including . The Australia Defence Association released a statement shortly after the announcement stating:
‘Mr Abbott's plan risked offending the bedrock Westminster principle to keep guns out of our politics.'

This hard right turn on policy is aimed at outdoing the harshness of Kevin Rudd’s recently announced plans to resettle refugees in Papua New Guinea. The plans also attracted comments from the Australian Defence Chief who felt a need to defend the current setup of military operations on our borders. General Hurley said, in a statement:
‘....the men and women working in this area (already) do an outstanding job under intense scrutiny.'

Abbott’s election pledge to "turn back boats" was put to a brutally unsuccessful test earlier this month. A vessel carrying refugees sank in Australian waters under the guidance of not one, but two Australian navy ships. The vessel, with 148 people on board, fell apart under the close surveillance of HMAS Albany and HMAS Warramunga. Most survived the ordeal, with 144 people being rescued, but unfortunately 4 asylum seekers perished at sea.

It will remain a major election talking point given the Liberal Party’s strongly held position on it. This recent sinking, given its escorted nature, gives us cause to revisit comments from Chief of the Australian Navy Ray Griggs. He stated at a Senate estimates hearing in October 2011 that:

"..there are risks involved in (revisiting) this whole endeavour.'

People smugglers are seemingly willing to maintain and even advance their business model through all manner of criminal methods. Australians must wonder if the Coalition has not considered the potential for the tow back policy? A policy that could create chaos, as people smugglers advise crew to sink boats in the presence to the Australian Navy.  The events of this month reveal that the human crisis on the high seas, without prudent sensible policy, has the potential to deteriorate further. Chief of the Australian Navy Ray Griggs has said that as many as half of all boats could sink. He said of his experience of the "tow back" policy under the Howard Government:
"I did two of these operations in 2001, one of which was successful, one of which was not successful."

Griggs also pointed out the operation had not continued throughout the Howard years. There were only a few instances, in the early 2000s, of "tow backs". He told the senate estimates hearing:
“We haven't done that since 2001.”

This recent sinking, which occurred in similar conditions to a proposed "tow back" scenario, should be the catalyst for the Coalition to rethink their position.

Tony Abbott needs to take into account today's vastly different asylum seeker movement patterns globally, comments from Navy Chief Griggs – and other experts – and fresh evidence from events of the month. His new policy is potentially a recipe for more severe oceanic problems. The "where it is safe to do so" proviso on Tony Abbot’s "turn back the boats" slogan clearly indicates danger of the situation.

It gives life to ideas in the minds of people smugglers and potentially encourages intentional drama as every effort is made to get desperate refugees onto Australian soil.

The Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa could not have stated clearer the Indonesian Government's opposition to "tow backs".

Editor's note (31/07/13, 8.30pm): In an earlier version of this article we incorrectly quoted the Australia Defence Association as saying:‘Mr Abbott's plan risked offending the bedrock Westminster principle to keep guns out of our politics’. The correct quote is now shown above. We sincerely apologise for this inaccuracy.

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