November 20, 2023
NEIL MITCHELL: Senator James Paterson. Good morning.
JAMES PATERSON: Good to be with you, Neil.
MITCHELL: Well, okay. To you, did the Prime Minister when he met the Chinese president, actually know about the Sonar attack?
PATERSON: Yes, there's absolutely no doubt in my mind. This incident occurred on Tuesday and within 24 hours, if not sooner, the Prime Minister would have been notified about this. The government announced it publicly on Saturday morning right after his press conference and right after he boarded his plane in San Francisco to come home. That looks to me like quite a deliberate strategy to avoid answering questions about this.
MITCHELL: So, come back a step what actually happened with the two ships?
PATERSON: As we understand it, the HMAS Toowoomba, which is the Australian vessel that was in international waters, but within Japan's exclusive economic zone which we are invited to be in by the Japanese government, was in the region enforcing United Nations sanctions against North Korea. This is a decades old international mission to make sure that North Korean sanctions are enforced. Fish nets were caught in its propellers and so it put divers into the sea to take those fishnets out of the propellers. Before it did so, it warned other ships in the area that it was doing so. Usually, it does so by radio communications and also by flag on the vessel that indicates there are men in the water. The Chinese vessel apparently acknowledged the receipt of those communications, then moved closer to the vessel, which is the first dangerous act, and then activated sonar pulses. Now, sonar pulses are a legitimate thing for a navy vessel to have and to use. They're used for navigation and avoiding obstacles, but you do not use them when there are other navy personnel in the water, particularly divers, because it can cause them injury and in this instance, it did cause them minor injuries and forced them out of the water. It's incredibly unprofessional.
MITCHELL: What's the injury? To the ear? Hearing that sort of thing?
PATERSON: Exactly right. It can affect your ears. It can give you headaches. At really close quarters, I understand it can have even worse effects on people on their lungs and other vital organs.
MITCHELL: But they're all okay, we believe?
PATERSON: Yes, that's my understanding. The injuries are described as minor, but they are injuries and it's a pretty extraordinary thing - this is the first time that anyone could remember that the PLA, at least since the Korean War, have caused injuries to Australian service personnel.
MITCHELL: And what should the Prime Minister have done, do you believe?
PATERSON: Well, the first thing he should have done is raise this directly with Xi Jinping in San Francisco. I'm someone who's quite supportive of the Prime Minister's international travel. I do believe it's in the national interest in the strategic environment we live in. But the whole purpose of this travel is that he advocates for Australia's interests, that he stands up for Australia. Now if he met Xi Jinping and Wang Yi, the Foreign Minister of China, while he was in San Francisco and he didn't raise this then frankly that is a desertion of his responsibilities as Prime Minister. That is an abdication of leadership.
MITCHELL: Well, he needs to answer that, doesn't he? He raised it or he didn't, and he's afforded the question. I can understand why being you know, that's diplomacy, but now's the time, he needs to answer whether he's raised it or not with the Chinese leadership.
PATERSON: Exactly right. He did no press conference yesterday when he was back in the country. He has to stand up today and answer these questions. He can't avoid answering them. I'm sure what he will do is say that he doesn't talk about those things, but of course, he does talk about it when it suits him. He was happy to say after he went to Beijing the issues that he raised with the Chinese leader. So, he must be happy to disclose this.
MITCHELL: This looks to me as if we're putting wine and lobster sales ahead of our responsibilities to our own people, is that too harsh?
PATERSON: That would be egregious if that is true, because the first responsibility of the Prime Minister is to Australian people and the safety and security and our men and women in uniform who take risks on our behalf and do so hoping that the government will always have their back. But if the Prime Minister hasn't backed them up then I think that is a shameful thing.
MITCHELL: Okay. The other thing, this High Court ruling, which has allowed high risk detainees in immigration detention into the community, how many now?
PATERSON: There are 93 as of yesterday. But that's quite an interesting figure because the government, they've been saying for weeks that there were 92 who had to be released and a further group of 340 in total that may have to be released. So, it looks like we've started to get into that larger group of people without any explanation from the government. Who is this 93rd person? Has anyone else been released since yesterday? What crimes have they committed? Where will they be released? Under what conditions? We just don't know.
MITCHELL: You had a reasonable result in the opposition in a reasonable result in getting a tougher approach to it? Isn't that enough?
PATERSON: Well, we had the first good result of getting the government to acknowledge that they had to pass legislation. Their starting position was that they couldn't pass any legislation at all until the High Court had handed down its reasons. We humiliated them into doing that and then we got them to back down again by putting in tougher conditions. But the reality is, even with the tougher conditions that we forced the government to accept, these people are still out in the community and some of them are very serious criminal offenders, literally murderers, rapists and child sex offenders. One of them are contract killer. They're not the sort of people that should be in the community at all and that's why we've asked the government to look at the high risk terrorist offender framework and whether any of the tools under that, like preventative or continuing detention orders, could be applied to this cohort to protect the community properly.
MITCHELL: Well, yeah, that's right. Can we actually get them back in unless they commit another crime?
PATERSON: Well, I think you can, I think on the basis of the risk they pose of the community you can, but it would require the government to act, it would require the government to legislate again. And so far, they’re unwilling to do that.
MITCHELL: Thank you very much, Senator James Paterson, the Shadow Home Affairs Spokesman.