People smugglers will be closely watching Australia’s political debate over border protection for cues to restart the trade, the outgoing head of Operation Sovereign Borders has warned.
Air Vice-Marshal Stephen Osborne described people smuggling operations as “suppressed” rather than defeated, saying Australia should never again be put in a situation where the Defence Force was “pulling bodies out of the water”.
“We know what the implications are for the ADF, let alone the rest of the country, if the boats were to start again,” he told The Australian on Wednesday.
Air Vice-Marshal Osborne said operators were prepared to use anything to sell the idea that the lucrative pathway to Australia has reopened.
He said media reporting, parliamentary debate or surveys about people’s attitude to border protection could be used by people smugglers.
“So any discussion that affects the policy of OSB and various elements of it,” he told the newspaper
“We can expect to be watched very carefully and may be used at the very least as a marketing tool.”
The issue has been in the spotlight with the coalition government accusing Labor of softening its stance on border protection after the opposition supported medical transfer measures for people in offshore processing.
Labor backed a bill which cleared the Senate last week allowing asylum seekers to be transferred to Australia for treatment on the advice of two doctors.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Immigration Minister David Coleman have led the attacks on the opposition, saying Labor has watered down its stance.
But Labor’s commitment to boat turnbacks and offshore processing isn’t expected to end at next week’s national conference, with key factional figures locking in behind existing policy.
The Australian reports Major General Craig Furini will take over from Air Vice-Marshal Osborne as Operation Sovereign Borders commander on Friday.