The Federal Government is changing the way it involves the military head of its border protection operation in its weekly media conferences, saying it wants to protect the integrity of the Australian Defence Force.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says Operation Sovereign Borders Commander General Angus Campbell will no longer be present for the entire weekly briefing.
From now, Mr Morrison says, General Campbell will give his weekly report on the number of boat arrivals and take a few questions before leaving.
“This morning I contacted the CDF [Chief of the Defence Force] General [David] Hurley to advise that the Government places the highest priority on protecting the integrity and independence of the Australian Defence Forces,” Mr Morrison said.
“I advised that in order to avoid any suggestion or perception being promoted for whatever purposes about the role of the ADF in Operation Sovereign Borders that, at my initiative and without being requested or without any issue being raised with me, I will be drawing a clear line between the operational and more general components of this briefing.
“To this end I will be inviting General Campbell to provide his report and then he will take a few questions on that report before he departs the briefing.
“I will then be available to address any or all of the other questions as appropriate and as the minister responsible for Operation Sovereign Borders.
“I take this initiative as a preventative measure to ensure the integrity of this operation and to ensure there are no improper reflections being made about the nature of the ADF’s involvement in this operation.”
The move comes in the wake of criticism of the Government’s tight control of information about the operation.
At last week’s briefing, General Campbell repeatedly refused to give details about questions he said related to “on-water matters”.
General Campbell today sought to explain why he has been so tight-lipped, saying people smugglers use “official announcements” of boat arrivals to persuade potential customers that “the way to Australia remains open”.
“It does not,” General Campbell said.
He says the announcements also ensure people smugglers get “final payments”.
General Campbell says information about where boats have been intercepted is used to convince asylum seekers to get on dilapidated boats.
“Passengers have been told on occasions by people smugglers not to be concerned by the poor state of their vessel, by the experience of their crew, by the lack of provisions on board because their voyage will be short and they will very quickly marry up with an Australian vessel nearby,” he said.
He says people smugglers have used information about “on water procedures” to instruct crew and passengers to thwart the work of authorities.
General Campbell says in some cases this has led to asylum seekers sabotaging their boats and destroying information.
“I do not believe in secrecy for secrecy’s sake,” he said.
Three asylum boats arrived in Australia in past week
General Campbell says three asylum seeker boats arrived in Australia in the past week, carrying a total of 163 asylum seekers and eight crew.
Two boats arrived at Christmas Island, one on Sunday and one on Monday.
General Campbell also confirmed a boat arrived in Darwin on Monday.
Mr Morrison refused to answer questions in Parliament this week about the boat that arrived in Darwin, saying he did not want to “undermine” the operation.
General Campbell says 97 people were transferred offshore in the past week, 67 to Manus Island and 30 to Nauru.
He says 31 people voluntarily returned to Iran and Iraq during the period.
General Campbell says Indonesia, supported by Australian authorities, arrested three “facilitators” and disrupted two “potential ventures,” in the past week.
He says Malaysia, supported in a similar fashion by Australia, disrupted two “additional potential ventures”.