Illustration: Ward O'Neill
As a moderate in the federal Coalition, many people told me from time to time how puzzled, or disappointed, they were that I backed the turn-back-the-boats policy of Scott Morrison.
"How can you? You support refugees!" I was once cajoled.
Indeed I do. I believe Australia has a responsibility, as a wealthy and successful society, to shoulder a heavier load than most in providing a haven to those who cannot live in their own homeland through persecution or discrimination.
Australia must be in a position where it has one of the largest planned humanitarian resettlement programs, where this program is backed by most Australians and where our dollar goes much further in assisting the displaced and dispossessed of this world.
To accomplish this, Australia must end the leaky boat flotillas that cross our northern waters. And that is what turn-back-the-boats is achieving right now. I have recently spoken confidentially with members of Task Force 639, a combination of navy, army and customs personnel working in the seas off Indonesia who have been charged with the execution of this policy. The picture they paint is very different to the one portrayed by much of our media (admittedly, a situation not mitigated by the government's information blackout around border security issues).
Up until a few days ago, about six boats carrying asylum seekers have been subjected to this new policy. In all cases, the vessels were intercepted swiftly and efficiently by Australian boarding parties, secured so as to prevent the scuttling of the vessels by the passengers, and turned back (except in one case where a boat was towed, briefly, while repairs were effected) to Indonesian ports.
There was no loss of life and, because of the swift securing of the boats, valuable documentation was obtained that will assist in further disrupting the people smugglers' business model.
Military leadership of this taskforce is about much more than the government looking tough. The involvement of tactical support personnel from the army and navy has introduced a critical new element into the fight: surprise.
By intercepting boats with the lightning precision we associate with the black pyjama brigade, those aboard have been denied the ability to scuttle the boats, destroy documents and erase mobile phone records. Sabotaging their vessel's seaworthiness transfers responsibility for the welfare of those aboard from the boat's occupants to Australian authorities. Denying the passengers this tactic - and it is always the passengers who have employed it, not the crew - gives Australian authorities the option of turn back.
If the boat is seaworthy, there is no reason for its occupants to be "rescued". If it is reasonable to conclude that a seaworthy Indonesian-flagged vessel is attempting an illegal entry into Australian waters, it is just as reasonable for Australian authorities to "escort" it back to Indonesian waters with enough fuel and provisions to make it back to an Indonesian port but no further.
An interesting observation from the taskforce members I spoke to concerned the very cynical role played by many passengers, the asylum seekers themselves. It is the passengers who prepare and execute the acts of sabotage on their boats - the bucket of seawater mixed with the fuel, the plank in the hull loosened to allow the entry of the sea into the bilge - and who take active steps to make themselves the responsibility of the Australians, most commonly by jumping into the sea.
These tactics have been described as the acts of desperate people, and in a sense they are. Typically they have paid thousands of dollars to fly to Indonesia and secure a place on a boat; the turning back of their vessel represents the loss of a substantial investment by them and, usually, their wider family.
I was briefed about the case of Tariq*, a passenger on one of the recent boats. As a close associate of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi, he recently fled Egypt. Like many other passengers on recent and past boats, Tariq passed through several Muslim countries where asylum could have been sought. At times he flew business class and stayed in hotels between flights.
Is Tariq a refugee? Probably, since his fate in his homeland is uncertain. Does he have a greater call on Australia's compassion than, say, a Sudanese languishing in a refugee camp in Chad? Probably not.
The use of these turn-back tactics is being questioned by refugee advocates and by the media. They are high-risk tactics, but the evidence is they are working. Boat arrivals have slowed dramatically and the cost of a place on a boat has fallen from $10,000 to $2000 (a sign the people smugglers no longer offer a guaranteed product).
If this is true, it is a major step forward. There is nothing humane about seeing people die at sea, and deaths at sea are inevitable under the previous, failed policy.
* Not his real name
Gary Humphries, a former ACT Liberal chief minister and senator, is now a lobbyist.