Australians should be told of boat turn-backs: Ex-navy chief

SYDNEY (AFP) - A retired Australian navy chief, who once led the turning back of asylum-seeker boats, on Tuesday criticised the government's decision to keep operations to repel vessels under wraps.

Australia's new conservative government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott has promised to turn back asylum-seeker boats when it is safe to do so, but revealed on Monday that the public will be kept in the dark about these operations.

"I think the Australian public do have a right to know as best they can, or as best the government can, as to what's going on," retired vice admiral David Shackleton told the ABC.

"The government said before it was elected it was going to do all these things. I think a measure of their success is keeping the Australian public informed, to be able to give the public confidence they are achieving what they said they are going to do."

Asylum-seekers arriving on people-smuggling boats are a sensitive issue in Australia, with more than 17,000 people risking their lives on often overcrowded wooden fishing vessels from Indonesia, to attempt to make it to Australia this year.

Arrivals have fallen since the former Labor government announced no unauthorised maritime arrivals would be resettled in Australia, instead banishing them to remote Pacific camps in Papua New Guinea and the tiny state of Nauru for permanent resettlement.

The new government will continue this policy, but has also launched the military-led Operation Sovereign Borders which involves turning around boats, and includes controversial plans to buy up Indonesian fishing boats to keep them from people-smugglers.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on Monday said the public would not be informed when asylum-seeker boats were turned around because it could affect future operational and tactical manoeuvres.

"Operational information and denial of it is often a really important part of military operations, but I think the reality is that it is going to be tough to achieve given the nature of modern communications, where it just is simply a phone call or an Internet click away," Mr Shackleton said.

Chris Bowen, a former Labor immigration minister who is now the interim opposition leader, said there was no security reason not to release information on every boat that arrived.

"At no point did the previous government receive any advice from the military or from any national security experts that the (media) releases of boat arrivals were jeopardising operational integrity," he said.

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