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Money to Burn: Outsourcing northern coastal surveillance

Written by: (Contributed) on 2 November 2021


A damning report from the Australian Auditor-General has highlighted serious deficiencies with a military and security provision project to “protect” the country's northern approaches. The problem, the outcome of military planning to include reliance on private contractors, has already cost Australian tax-payers huge amounts of money.

More, it would appear, may well now be set to follow: the present Morrison coalition government is still, apparently, considering an extension to the existing out-sourced military and security contract despite the serious problems which have already arisen.

In October, the Australian Auditor-General, Grant Hehir, published a scathing report about the Department of Home Affairs and their $1.5 billion aerial surveillance program conducted by Surveillance Australia to protect the northern shores of the country from criminals and people-smuggling rackets, drug-traffickers and illegal fishing. (1) Australian tax-payers were obliged to pay $87 million for surveillance flights which never took place; in fact, only 64 per cent of scheduled flights actually happened. The government department responsible subsequently attempted to deduct a mere $2.3 million from the private company's payments, turning a blind-eye of indifference to the remainder.

The report also provided a fascinating insight into a shadowy world where political expediency has merged with military and security provision and the out-sourcing of military contracts; little scrutiny has been given to how tax-payers’ money has been allocated.

The Australian Operation Sovereign Borders was established in 2013, with a statement from Home Affairs that 'it faced unprecedented operational challenges' with defence and security provision of the country's northern approaches. It rested, however, upon earlier border provision dating from 2006; it was noted the Surveillance Australia contract was then altered forty times, with a cost increase rising from the initial agreed payment of $1.1 billion. Wheels existed within wheels inside the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing networks which took their chosen course; the elite body, consisting of privileged patron systems, has extensive experience of operations based in codes of silence. No suitable explanation was provided by Surveillance Australia about eleven per cent of their given flights being cancelled or aborted and 25 per cent only being partially completed. (2)

The Australian-based contractor, Surveillance Australia, for example, formed part of the larger UK-based Cobham Ltd., which was supposed to operate 15,000 flying hours a year using ten civilian aircraft which operated from four bases in northern Australia.    

Surveillance Australia has continued to operate from within the shadowy corridors of power; officially registered as a private company on 12 September 1990, it would appear based at Adelaide Airport in South Australia, the 'Defence State'. (3) Information emerging about its existence has included reference to its provision of 'mobile communications services … military science and research … software maintenance and support … and the ability to … integrate surveillance and communication and provide real time communications to Customs Headquarters in Canberra … from 2008'. (4)

Other information about Surveillance Australia has included reference to their three operational bases in Cairns, Darwin and Broome with six DHC-8-202 and four larger DHC-8-315/Dash 8 aircraft fitted with Raytheon Sea-view Surface Search Radar and other radar systems. (5) It is no coincidence the three operational bases all swing on an arc from Adelaide using an actual size map. (6)

What is also significant is that Surveillance Australia would appear to operate in conjunction with the larger US-led regional surveillance provision based at Pine Gap; the same arc from the operational bases also swings through other sensitive military facilities linking telecommunications with others based on Diego Garcia and Singapore. (7)

Defence and security provision of northern Australia has, historically, rested upon compliance from governments of the South Pacific countries of PNG, the Solomons and Vanuatu which have small-scale, localised military provision. It has been overseen by Australian provision, which in turn, has relied upon US-led provision from Pine Gap.

Elsewhere, other coverage of the highly sensitive military and security provision to “protect” Australian northern shores was contained in a statement from Peter Dutton, former minister for Home Affairs. In 2018 he spoke about 'drones prowling Australia's far-flung ocean boundaries … and … undersea sensors monitoring shipping movements around coastlines', although, to date, the present Morrison coalition government has not revealed anything about the provision 'or whether it is still on the table'. (8)

The present Australian coalition government is still considering a six-year extension to Surveillance Australia's present contract which is set to expire at the end of the year. In light of a recent media release from the Australian Federal Police warning that the proposed re-opening of borders will possibly trigger a wave of renewed criminal activity on Australia's northern approaches, the silence from PM Scott Morrison has been deafening. (9) But then, the problem has been given extremely limited coverage and the actual report itself is difficult to access. And then, furthermore, for the likes of Morrison and his parliamentary coterie, it is only about taxpayers’ money and there is plenty more for his government to squander to keep their cronies elsewhere happy, if they see fit.

Just compare the Surveillance Australia example to their attitudes toward ordinary working people experiencing problems with CentreLink who are often expected to pay back a few dollars from their benefits to comply with ever-changing thresholds and bureaucratic manoeuvres specifically designed to create problems for those accessing benefits which are their entitlements.  

The information available about Surveillance Australia has revealed widespread failings on the part of Canberra: it remains to be seen how they attempt to explain themselves or cover up the problem using administrative methods typical of 'Yes, Minister'. Or, what is far more likely, by displaying their usual arrogance, and just remaining silent.

1.     Eye-in-sky border patrol failure, Australian, 25 October 2021.
2.     Ibid.
3.     Surveillance Australia,, (2021)
4.     Ibid.
5.     Wikipedia: Surveillance Australia, October 2021.
6.     See: Map of the World, Peters Projection, Actual Size.
7.     Ibid.
8.     Australian, op.cit., 25 October 2021.
9.     Crime wave risk as borders open, Australian, 26 October 2021.


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