Rumblings under the surface

Johnston Magoo

It’s pretty clear by now the incursion into Indonesian waters has been deliberate.

The last thing the government and the Navy would want would be a lifeboat, purchased with Australian tax dollars, with a supercargo of poor boat people, shoved into it by force and guarded by Navy personnel for at least some of the journey, left to founder in stormy seas with all on board it drowned.

Either there were orders to play it safe, including violating Indonesian territory if necessary, or the captains involved used their initiative and, out of compassion and/or duty, escorted the lifeboats to as close to the Indonesian shoreline as possible.

That they turned their navigation lights off (and, it seems, their GPS transponders) indicates that the incursions were definitely considered in advance and that there was a procedure for doing so decided upon.

Once is happenstance. Twice is co-incidence. Three times is enemy action. FIVE times is policy.

For the likes of Carlton to be (to use one of his favourite words) blathering on about the anachronistic structure of Northern Command (going back to 1942, don’t ya know… when you could argue it had a purpose) as a result of “insider” information – at odds it seems with other “insider” information from others who have Navy mates – seems to be a red herring. “Heads will roll” was his confident prediction. I bet you they don’t, unless the officers involved breached Indonesian security of their own accord.

If there are to be sacrificial lambs, they’d better not be from the ranks of junior naval officers, given the opportunity to use their judgement of the position at sea, and then sacked for doing just that. It wouldn’t be long before the queue of volunteers for OpSov command duty thinned out considerably. Who wants to sacrifice their career advancement for the likes of Abbott and Morrison?

Much merriment has been made of Defence Minister David Johnston’s comments about how OpSov is a civilian operation, albeit using elements of the armed forces. He should tell Scott Morrison that. Perhaps he has? Perhaps forcefully. Notice that as soon as the shit hits the fan, they start squabbling and pointing fingers… so far at third parties, but how long until they swing the digits around and start mouthing each other off?

Here we have what was an entirely predictable quandary.

We have a Defence Minister who is not allowed to make day-to-day decisions regarding forces nominally under his responsibility. Instead the buffoon Morrison, is being allowed to wallow in the dubious glory of “stopping the boats”, quoting military security (not “civilian security”) as the reason for refusing to disclose any details at all, causing journalists to guess at what’s been really happening, allowing scandals to brew and then being left with nothing more than cheap references to “patriotism” to defend Johnston’s defence assets.

No wonder Johnston is angry. I suspect he’s as angry with Morrison as he claims to be with the ABC. Johnston’s hands are tied. His men are doing the work, and copping the flak, while Morrison is accruing the glory (except when he’s apologizing on their behalf), insiders tell Carlton that “heads will roll”, and any criticism of the Navy is written off as lefty ABC hatred of Australia.

And in the middle of all this, naval assets are being nominally commanded by an army general who’s spent as much time on the “reserve” list as he has in uniform in recent years, only got his third star because he’s a pal of the Liberals, and has been a rampant critic of past Labor governments. They needed a ranking, nodding head to front up at press conferences and say “No comment”, so Angus “Mr. Magoo” Campbell got the gig. What the hell would he know about life at sea?

The shouting Johnston indulged in, bellowing at the ABC was, I suspect, as much directed at Morrison as the national broadcaster. Except Johnston can’t criticise Morrison in public, so he biffed the ABC instead. The government line is that reporting the accusations of asylum seekers (“They’re not even Australians!”) against the brave boys and girls of the Navy is un-Australian, despite the dawning realization among journalists and the public that there is more to them than Morrison would admit.

Telling a journalist to naff off is guaranteed to get their gander up. It is guaranteed to get different media organizations vying with each other to get the scoop.

It’s all well and good for tame Murdoch hacks to sit back and wait for the phone to ring from the Cabinet room, bragging about their “exclusive” insider information. But unfortunately the various stories that are filtering through are beginning to fray around the edges. Inconsistencies are creeping in. Version control has gone to hell as each new media revelation requires the official story to be molded into shape around it, to better fit the new “Facts”.

From an outright denial that anything happened, we now appear to have an admission that something did indeed “happen”. Something involving the use of physical force at (at least) low levels, conflicted understandings of the rules of engagement regarding breaching Indonesian sovereign waters, the extinguishment of navigation lights, life-boats being towed, rivalries and disagreement between cabinet ministers, confused chains of command, drownings and, almost indisputably, what is tantamount to piracy on the high seas by the Royal Australian Navy.

As this story develops, I doubt whether the anti-ABC mantras of the government – as the sole explanation for all the confusion – can continue to be maintained.

The reason there is confusion is because the government’s policy is to confuse: to confuse the people smugglers (let’s take them at their word on that), to confuse the Indonesians, and to confuse the Australian people. They can hardly now claim to be upset that their policy has succeeded spectacularly.

Morrison was warned that, in place of factual information, speculation would run rife. It has thus come to pass.

He should have realized, from the media reaction to Labor’s proposed media laws, that the media doesn’t like criticism, and has the means to do something about it.

Reinstituting D-Notices, blustering at the Ultimo lefties, appeals to patriotism, the selective leaking of more and more bizarre versions of the story to explain the latest revelations, calls for “heads to roll” and the pathetic pseudo-military posturing of the pugnacious Morrison won’t cut it for much longer.

Apart from the success or otherwise of the Stop The Boats policy, there’s ample evidence that the public doesn’t care anymore. Boats have never been high on the list of issues exercising the public’s imaginations. Sure, when asked by pollsters they say they want them stopped, but it’s not a towering concern for them. Jobs, education, health… they are the biggies. “Boats” was only ever a proxy issue, something designed by bored journalists and Coalition lurk merchants to provide something for Labor and Liberal to argue over… and for the Coalition to win the argument.

Once the “Boats” really are stopped, what will the public care about them? When the confected, ersatz conflict is resolved, what then? Will there be big changes to, say, traffic jams on the M4 Motorway? Will the rape statistics go down? Will we see swarthy men of Middle Eastern appearance no longer spitting on the street?

Punter concern will return to (if it ever left) jobs, education and health, I suppose. Oh, and the economy too, something the government has been busy telling us is destroyed with nothing but gloom, unemployment and near-recession in store for it. Put those credit cards away. Joe Hockey says bad times are coming. Well… it worked when they were in Opposition. The only problem was that Joe was supposed to solve the problem, not revel in it.

Something’s got to give. Cabinet is already leaking. We know the supposedly “confidential” SPCA cabinet numbers (11-9 against). More secrets are about to be revealed as runners from the Coalition side tie up their shoe laces for the sprint away from the Abbott ideologues and the other Tea Party-type crazies.

The ABC has grovelled, all but apologizing. Navy insiders have spun a web of contradictions through their media contacts. Bootstrappers are about, trying to establish common wisdom before it’s too late. Denials that the story had any truth to it at all are being replaced by “So what if we did?”.

Only one person, a Somali man named Yousif Ibrahim Fasher, has stuck to his guns. His quiet determination to get the tale out has put our government and our media to shame. It has caused Cabinet to get involved in a turf war.

Heads may well yet roll… but whose heads?

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877 thoughts on “Rumblings under the surface

  1. Alastair Furnival has resigned. Not to worry, I’m sure Tony has a cushy new position lined up for him.

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