Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS)


For thousands of years, navies have been used primarily for military purposes; battling against opposing naval forces, protecting trade and supporting land forces. They have other roles, which have evolved over time, and are now commonly categorized as the diplomatic and constabulary functions of navies. The diplomatic function relies on the ability of navies to operate freely at sea and to exert influence through their presence. The constabulary function of navies involves law enforcement at sea and relates to the protection of borders, natural resources and the marine environment.

Not all navies have become equally involved in the constabulary function. For some smaller navies it marks the limit of their capability, while for others it is only a very small part of their total responsibility. For example, the United States Navy undertakes relatively few constabulary functions; leaving most to the United States Coast Guard which has been established specifically for law enforcement duties. On the other hand, the Royal Navy has played a larger role in the constabulary function, alongside several civilian law enforcement agencies.

This thesis examines Australia’s approach to law enforcement at sea, from the time of Federation until the end of 2012, and what it has meant for the Royal Australian Navy. The examination covers the nature and evolution of the law enforcement challenges, noting that illegal immigration and resources protection have been recurring issues from the beginning. In considering government responses to illegal activities at sea the thesis identifies the slow, tentative and relatively informal approach that characterized action until the extension of resource zones, and the arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers by boat, demanded a more effective approach. The thesis also tracks the evolution of supporting legislation, from an early trickle to a growing flood, reflecting the increasing internationalization and complexity of law enforcement at sea.

Despite the longstanding involvement of navies in the constabulary function the Royal Australian Navy was slow to engage in it, with wars, funding restrictions and government ambivalence contributing factors. This thesis demonstrates, however, that since the Navy took on the constabulary function, formally from 1967, it has become integral to the Navy’s operations. Furthermore, the constabulary function has had profound impacts on the Navy’s force structure, basing, people and public image, not all of which have been to the Navy’s advantage.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.