A Royal Australian Navy captain will lose command of his ship and another will receive administrative punishment over the recent incursions into Indonesian waters during border protection operations.
The Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, announced in a statement on Thursday that he was carrying out the sanctions against the ship commanders to uphold the standards of the navy.
Five more captains would be “formally or informally counselled,” the statement said.
While Admiral Griggs accepted the incursions in December and January were not deliberate, they constituted “lapses in professional conduct that required action to be taken”.
“Each of the Commanding Officers conducted these activities with the best of intent. However, I expect nothing but the highest standards of those in command,” Admiral Griggs said.
As a result, Admiral Griggs would “remove one Commanding Officer from his command and another will be administratively sanctioned”, the statement reads.
There were seven navy vessels involved in the six incursions, with more than one ship involved in each breach. The Customs vessel Ocean Protector also breached Indonesian waters.
Fairfax Media understands that at least some of the incursions happened while asylum-seeker boats were being turned back to Indonesia.
A review of the incidents by Defence and Customs found that the breaches – which angered Jakarta – were inadvertent and arose because the ships’ crews did not know where the maritime boundaries lay.
Indonesia, as an archipelago country, has boundaries that are calculated according to base lines, meaning the actual boundary can be much further out than the standard 12 nautical miles.
Citing the Privacy Act, the navy statement does not give the names of the ships’ commanders, nor of the ships themselves. It also does not explain what type of “administrative sanction” will be given to the second captain.
Furthermore, the statement does not make it clear why the punishments differ across the seven ship captains involved.
It is understood the punishment decisions were entirely Admiral Griggs' and were made independently of the government.
Admiral Griggs added that the action he was taking was “not punitive in nature but are aimed solely at upholding the professional standards that the Royal Australian Navy is renowned for and that are necessary for it to undertake its mission”.
He said personal accountability was “a key feature of navy’s cultural change program”.
Labor’s acting defence spokesman, David Feeney, said it was “unfair in the extreme that navy officers are being disciplined and counselled, while Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison refuse to take any responsibility for the Indonesian incursions”.
While stressing he was not criticising Admiral Griggs, Senator Feeney said the key issue was that the government had failed to put in place proper oversight of Operation Sovereign Borders, the government’s counter-people-smuggling regime.