It is not OK to conduct military incursions into other countries' territories. It has never been OK. Morrison promised never to comment on operational matters, but he had to comment on these 'repeated incursions' before the full details came from Indonesia, or from some source other than his own mouth.
All the PR smarties tell you that if you have bad news, get it out early and get it out yourself. Some news, however, goes beyond mere 'bad news' or even a misunderstanding. Military incursions into other countries' territories is in this category.
The other category error that Morrison made was to blame the Navy, as though it blundered into Indonesian waters:
It was brought to my attention at just after 4.00pm Wednesday that Border Protection Command assets had, in the conduct of maritime operations associated with Operation Sovereign Borders, inadvertently entered Indonesian territorial waters on several occasions, in breach of Australian Government policy.It strains credibility that the Navy veered off course and did not realise its vessels were in Indonesian waters. The Navy sent its vessels where government told them to go, and did what government told them to do. It is not OK to blame the military for government policy blunders, and ultimately such a tactic will work against the government rather than the military.
I should stress that this occurred unintentionally and without knowledge or sanction by the Australian Government.
From now on people in the military are more likely to leak against this government. People in the military are more likely to have credibility that politicians lack. Any difference of opinion between a politician and the military will be resolved in favour of the military (with the possible exception of bullying allegations). When you consider that military personnel vote Coalition more than any other occupational grouping, this is a political own-goal as well as a governmental one.
Australia needs a long-term relationship with Indonesia more than it needs this or that lot of politicians in government. That relationship will change as Indonesia grows in economic and political power. A big part of Australia's economic growth prospects lie in our increasing engagement with Indonesia. This government has no capacity for improving relations with Indonesia. Even after this government loses office, the silly-buggers of the past four months will be hard to live down.
Almost every Prime Minister in Australia's history has been confronted with the prospect of politicising the military. On almost every occasion, they have flinched and backed down from doing that; indeed, the Coalition went too far in not standing up for service personnel returning from Vietnam and giving them fewer benefits than returnees from World War II got from the cash-strapped Chifley and Menzies governments.
Veterans from Afghanistan will get fewer benefits still, and naval personnel injured at sea while intercepting boats will get less than that. This is worth remembering when watching Abbott and his ministers proclaim themselves strong supporters of the military, and when the press gallery simply pass on words and images to that effect without comment or qualification.
If Howard had been Prime Minister, he would now be in Jakarta apologising, particularly to Mrs Yudhuyono. His smarter advisors would be casting around for someone with the same credentials with Indonesia that Dr Marty Natalegawa (PhD, ANU) and Dewi Fortuna Anwar (MA, Monash) have with this country. He would realise that a strong relationship with Indonesia is important and that anyone who had to go to maintain that would go.
Peter Reith lied about the military to advance the political prospects of the then government, and his own career. He left politics abruptly, suggesting that Howard basically lost confidence in him. Today, in the emerging Fairfax tradition of commissioning jowl-wobbling outrage from grumpy old farts as clickbait, he can make catty remarks about the Liberal Party presidency but he has little to offer (either from his own mouth or as an example) about how an elected government can and should relate to the country's armed forces as part of governing. Always be suspicious when a media tart goes to ground.
Peter Reith was once regarded by inside-Canberra sages as a potential future leader (while Reith has gone, many of said sages are still there). Senator Ian Campbell was pretty highly regarded when Howard sacked him for, um, whatever he sacked him for. David Jull was highly regarded within the Australian tourism industry, as Morrison was. None of the inside-Canberra reasons why Morrison is Too Big To Sack stand up.
The Liberal Party is organised around strong leaders; Labor has institutional checks and balances, but the Liberals are all about the Fuehrerprinzip. The Nationals can get a look-in when they bring quality to the table, as they did in the '70s with Peter Nixon and Ian Sinclair, but mostly they are passengers in a Coalition government.
Abbott is a weak Prime Minister: weak on ideas, weak on execution, weak on resolving conflict, weak on insisting that his team deliver more and better. The fact that he talks slowly is almost beside the point because his words seem to carry no weight. Because the press gallery are mugs, they agreed that his strutting around and declarative statements would make him a strong leader, and they are puzzled that the evidence before them contradicts their convictions. By this point in her Prime Ministership, Julia Gillard was pretty much written off by the press gallery.
What, then, should Abbott do?
Abbott isn't going to get rid of himself, though perhaps he should. When he was in South Africa, the big decisions on Holden and Graincorp were taken in his absence. He can commentate on the cricket, but not apparently on incursions into Indonesian waters. When the big decisions have to be taken, he's not exactly stamping his authority and nor is he conferring to find workable solutions. He's a passenger in his own government, not the pilot or even the navigator.
Getting rid of Bishop would be too hard. She would become a lightning rod for everyone who has their doubts about Abbott. We could end up with an unmarried woman who was a former law-firm partner in the Lodge with her male partner, and my goodness we can't have that.
Getting rid of "three star" General Angus Campbell would be too soft. Campbell was always human window-dressing and nothing would be achieved in scapegoating him, except to antagonise the armed forces still further.
Abbott hasn't thought through the implications of appointing Peter Cosgrove as Governor-General for our relationship with Indonesia. After hyping Cosgrove so much Abbott can't afford not to appoint him, as appointing anyone else would look like a slap in the face to a man widely admired in this country.
Getting rid of Morrison would be just right. The longer Morrison stays in office, the clearer it is that Abbott is not really sorry for the incursions, and that the whole policy of patronising Indonesia like we do Vanuatu or New Zealand will continue. Within the Liberal Party, nobody trusts Morrison: the right hate him because they regard him as a smarmy, self-promoting turd, while their opponents on the lesser right know him to be a smarmy, self-promoting turd. Right now he's doing nothing to turn around dicey polling numbers, but if he backs down altogether and starts weeping for the wretched cast upon the waters he is gone.
Like Kevin Rudd on 'the greatest moral challenge of our time', Morrison is finished no matter what he does. He isn't big enough to reinvent himself and spring clear of this current imbroglio, which is why he can't really 'resign' in any meaningful sense. He's just treading water and getting away with it. If you're the head of this government and you don't want the whole government to be similarly stuck, then you have no choice but to cut him loose and reframe the debate.
Mind you, Tony Abbott isn't one for public debate. He's never seen any good thing arise from public debate. Since he was at university, Tony Abbott aligned himself with powerful people and articulated their interests. The Catholic church and the monarchy are not democratic institutions, and neither is the Liberal Party in any real sense. As long as he's in with the decision-makers, he's happy to let what he regards as idle chit-chat run and run - but when the impressions of this government are so fluid and when simple declarative statements are contradicted by observable facts, he runs the risk that his own statements will be regarded as just more idle chit-chat, rather than the desired effect of Shut Up And Listen This Is Your Prime Minister Speaking.
It would be surprising, but not beyond the realms of possibility, for the Commission of Audit to decide that onshore processing is more cost-effective than Nauru or Manus Island. In the same way that only Richard Nixon could go to "Red China" without being red-baited by Richard Nixon, Tony Abbott could come to welcome boat-borne refugees without any of your "pick up the phone!" nonsense - but then, for the first time in his life, he would have to run a positive campaign and become a bigger person than he is. If you still believe that's possible, read this. Fat chance - not even with the considerable power of the office that he currently occupies.