Some thoughts about maritime management
27 Nov 2013|

The current spat between Australia and Indonesia, now centred around intelligence gathering, is also ensnaring Australia’s management of its maritime domain after Indonesia suspended intelligence cooperation on maritime people smuggling. The Coalition’s asylum seeker policy has an inherent risk of undermining its operational application (PDF, pages 69-72) through its potential to irritate Indonesia. But it might be an early administrative decision of the government that has more serious implications for Australia’s management of its maritime domain.

This is the transfer of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) from the Attorney General’s portfolio to the control of the Minister for Immigration—another example of policy in this area being driven by reaction to political crisis. Most such changes have paid scant attention to the range of Australia’s maritime interests or to the best ways of managing them (PDF, p14 on).

Managing these interests is complex and difficult because of what I characterised recently as three problems of size. The first is physical, because Australia’s maritime domain is truly vast, with the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering 10.4 million square kilometres, 35% more than the Australian land mass. The second is the complexity of the legislative and administrative arrangements (PDF, pages 15–20) that confer authority to manage the maritime domain, with 28 Commonwealth agencies and six generic types of State body playing a role. The third problem is that the agencies responsible for conducting on-water and aerial maritime operations, Border Protection Command (BPC) and Customs’ Maritime Unit, are buried within the vastly larger and more diverse ACBPS.

The size of the EEZ means that awareness of events can often be no better than patchy. This is true even for specified areas under heightened surveillance—as demonstrated by the arrival in mid-November of a boatload of Somalian asylum seekers in waters off Darwin despite all the deployed resources of Operation Soverign Borders. The Chief of Navy considers that sustaining situational awareness across the EEZ will remain an elusive goal (PDF, p8).

Australia’s system of management has been cobbled together over time and, although administrative arrangements were improved earlier this year with the passage of the Maritime Powers Bill 2012, effective management depends on cooperation and coordination between agencies. These points of coordination have proved to be recurring points of vulnerability. This was the central reason behind the Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders being configured as a coordinated operation led by a three star ADF officer to focus efforts against asylum seeker boats.

ACBPS is a major national security agency with around 5,000 staff and broadly diversified nationwide responsibilities that are growing in scope and complexity. Consequently, the Service has been struggling with major staff, management and funding issues and has acknowledged the need for major structural changes in order to survive. Under the previous government these issues occupied the full attention of a Minister responsible for the security agencies.

BPC and the ACBPS Maritime Unit probably comprise less than 7% of ACBPS’ staffing. Coastwatch, the predecessor of BPC, was placed in the Customs Service as a semi-autonomous agency reporting directly to the CEO. This position was lost and then, in response to an incident involving a major failing of coordination (PDF, pages 8-9) restored by means of appointing a two star ADF officer to head what later became BPC. The situation has deteriorated again with BPC now buried within ACBPS’ Border Enforcement division (PDF).

The standing of ACBPS’ maritime operational elements seems further diminished through the liaison for Operation Secure Borders, which has no structural connection with ACBPS, coming from an unrelated branch of Border Enforcement. Attorney General Senator George Brandis has affirmed his interest in the portfolio’s national security role, something that led him in Opposition to expose the neglect of Australia’s Antarctic EEZ. This shortcoming is unlikely to be redressed under current ministerial arrangements.

However, more than a simple readjustment of these ministerial responsibilities is needed. Last week Anthony Bergin and Sam Bateman argued that the establishment of a new agency focused on policing the maritime domain is required. I’ve argued earlier (PDF, pages 23–24) that the commander of such an organisation should be responsible directly to a designated Minister.

The heavy politicisation of issues like irregular maritime immigration has meant that policy responses become a ‘final solution’, intended to expunge the political irritant. The consequence is a view of ‘normality’ as a problem-free maritime domain requiring no further consideration of management arrangements. This view is apparent even in the thinking of a former Commander of BPC who developed most of its current arrangements, and appears to be overly hopeful.

As Bergin and Bateman point out, problems can arise in many areas of the maritime domain. In little more than the first decade of the 21st century, there have been three major challenges to Australia’s authority in its north-western waters and the increasing importance of the maritime domain will demand continuing attention. For example, exports of minerals and energy are projected to lead to a threefold increase (PDF, page 64) in shipping transiting close to offshore resources zones, raising the requirements for managing issues of shipping safety, environmental protection and counterterrorism.

It would seem a good idea that the government not consider Operation Secure Borders a temporary measure to be dissolved once asylum boat numbers diminish and it’s three star officer can be transferred to an ADF vacancy. Rather, it’ll make more sense for the long-term security of Australia’s maritime zones to use the experience gained from this operation in the creation of a new agency to absorb and improve the efficiency of existing agencies in managing the maritime domain.

Derek Woolner is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the ANU.