National Security

Transcript | ABC Radio Kimberley | 15 May 2024

May 15, 2024

Wednesday 15 May 2024
Interview on ABC Radio Kimberley
Subjects: Labor's weakness on borders is bringing back the boats

VANESSA MILLS: Since November last year, 91 people have been taken into custody after arriving on six boats from Indonesia to Australia. There's been the arrivals at Truscott twice, the Pender Bay arrivals, and last week, two boats were intercepted off the WA coast, with 37 people reportedly seeking asylum. One boat with the majority of people on board was at Christmas Island. Another had a very vague location as being 'off Broome' with four Vietnamese. Now where any of those people have been taken is unknown. The Federal Government won't comment on it. The Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, James Paterson, says the public deserves to know more, especially about the latest arrivals.

JAMES PATERSON: Unfortunately, there's very little that we do know and what we do know, we only know from media reports because the government hasn't made any announcements or confirmed any facts about this. They haven't been transparent about what has happened here. But it appears that in both instances, we have a group of people attempting to make the journey to Australia. 33 people who turned up at Christmas Island, and four people who turned up near Broome off the northwest of Western Australia. And this is extraordinary because it's virtually unprecedented in decades of border protection policy history that people have been turning up on Australian territory without being identified and usually intercepted by the Australian Border Force prior to that.

MILLS: This vacuum of no information, no comment policy of Sovereign Borders does create misinformation. Would you change the no comment policy if the Liberals formed government in 2025?

PATERSON: When we were previously in government, we were also cautious about publicly commenting about operations, particularly while they were under way on the oceans. And there's good policy reason for that. What's changed here, though, is that these are not operations at sea. These are not interceptions by the ABF. These are often boats coming all the way to the Australian mainland, dropping people off and leaving again without being detected. And because that's so unusual, I think that demands a different level of transparency. And I don't understand why the government can't be more transparent about that. I think it's up to them to explain why. We would always take operational advice, but my bias is we should tell the public more. They deserve to know more, not less.

MILLS: Have you had any briefings about why there has been this influx? Six known boats since November and three in the past week?

PATERSON: Unfortunately, no. I have not had a single briefing on this issue, and that's not because I haven't requested it. I have repeatedly requested briefings on this from the government, and they have repeatedly declined to provide those briefings and in some cases, even respond to my requests. This is a major departure from the bipartisan approach that we took when we were in government. We briefed the former shadow minister for Home Affairs, Senator Kristina Keneally, on multiple occasions about border protection policy, including specific but arrival incidents. But that hasn't been returned now that we're in opposition and the Labor Party is in government.

MILLS: Do you think more needs to be done in Indonesia to prevent the boats setting out either to fish in Australian waters or to smuggle people?

PATERSON: Yes, that might be necessary because it does appear that something has changed in the business model here. There's certainly some people who believe that the prevalence of illegal fishing in the region has led to this return of people smuggling, because illegal fishers have realised how close they can get to the Australian mainland without detection or disruption, and realised that one cargo far more lucrative than fish is people, and that if you can convince desperate people, they'll pay an extraordinary amount of money to try and come to Australia. Now it is a despicable trade and we have to shut it down. And what it really requires is much better aerial and maritime surveillance off our northwest coast. But under this government that's dropped by 20% in terms of aerial surveillance and 12% by maritime patrol days. So it's no wonder that boats are slipping through.

MILLS: What would you do if you were in government in terms of increasing aerial surveillance or water surveillance?

PATERSON: We urgently need to return that to the levels that we saw under the last government, and that might require more adequate funding. We know that in the last budget, the government plan to cut funding for Operation Sovereign Borders by $436 million over the next three years. We'll be looking very closely at the upcoming budget to see if they do the same again. So funding may need to be restored, but we also might need to look at other forms of surveillance rather than manned aircraft. We may need to look at drones or other unmanned vehicles that can operate in the region.

MILLS: And is Nauru a policy that you would continue with, or would you prefer to reopen Christmas Island's detention centre?

PATERSON: Regional processing was a highly successful feature of Operation Sovereign Borders under the previous government. But interestingly, media reports indicate in the case of these recent arrivals, they haven't yet been transferred to Nauru and no explanation has been provided as to why. I want to understand if that is because they have being returned to their point of departure, whether that's Indonesia in the region, or anywhere else, or whether they've been returned to their country of origin where they originally sought to leave from, and how these people's claims of asylum are being assessed. Normally they would be sent to Nauru so that they can be assessed, and if they are found to be genuine refugees they would be placed in a third country. Because that hasn't happened or has not yet happened in this instance, I think there are very serious questions to ask about whether this is another departure from Operation Sovereign Borders.

MILLS: And in terms of reopening Christmas Island's detention centre, is that something you think is necessary or needed?

PATERSON: Well, hopefully it's not necessary. Hopefully we can continue the successful policies of the previous government, which actually closed a large number of detention centres, including on the Australian mainland, because we were able to slow down the arrival of boats and process people offshore. So I hope it's not necessary, but we will do whatever is necessary to stop this despicable trade again if we get back into government.

MILLS: That's the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, James Paterson.


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