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Wednesday, 15 August 2007
Page: 83


Mr HAASE (3:00 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Defence. Would the minister update the House on the role of our defence forces in protecting our borders? Is the minister aware of any alternative approaches? What is the government’s response?


Dr NELSON (Minister for Defence) —I thank the member for Kalgoorlie for his question and very strong commitment to the protection of Australia’s borders. Beyond the economic fundamentals for Australian families, the first priority of the Australian government, the Howard government in particular, is the protection and defence of Australia. There is no higher priority, of course, than the protection of our borders. That means the protection of our gas and other resource platforms; making sure that people do not come here unlawfully and steal our fish; dealing with the people smugglers and drug smugglers; and making sure that our exclusive economic zone is protected.

Last year in the budget, the Treasurer announced a $387 million increased investment for the protection of Australia’s borders. Border Protection Command, the Royal Australian Navy, Australian Customs, the Australian Federal Police and other agencies make a concerted and coordinated effort to protect our borders. Only last Sunday, a vessel with 200 kilograms of illegally caught Australian fish on board was intercepted and destroyed by the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Huon. Also, last year I requested the Chief of the Defence Force to strengthen the rules of engagement for the Royal Australian Navy. That means that they are now able to do a number of things, which range from firing across the bows with teargas towards foreign fishing vessels right through to directly firing upon those vessels—all of which have been used. In fact, in the last 12 months, we have had a 91 per cent reduction in sightings of foreign fishing vessels in Australia’s exclusive economic zone. This is an extraordinary tribute not only to the determination of the Howard government to protect our borders but to the men and women who do it on our behalf.

I am asked about alternative policies. The Australian Labor Party, for a number of years, has had a policy called Coastguard. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has coined it ‘coast guide’. It has had four iterations. Firstly, the Australian Federal Police and Defence have expressed very strong reservations about a so-called coastguard. On 30 January 2001, the then Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police told the public accounts committee of the parliament: ‘I would gain no comfort at all from those arrangements which would cause a division through the investigative focus in a very counterproductive way.’ The Department of Defence said this to the same inquiry—


Mr Bevis —In answer to what proposition? Try telling the truth for once.


Dr NELSON —‘The creation of a coastguard would have a detrimental effect—


Mr Bevis interjecting


Dr NELSON —on Navy training and experience.’ Of particular concern, I think, to Australians—


Mr Bevis interjecting


The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Brisbane is warned!


Dr NELSON —is that the CFMEU journal, called Common Cause, in October and November 2001, said this about a so-called coastguard: ‘The creation of an Australian coastguard would be manned by members of the Maritime Union.’ Anybody who has watched Sea Patrol on Channel 9, which is an outstanding reflection of the work that is done by the Royal Australian Navy, needs to imagine what it would be like having Australia’s borders protected by small boats of a coast guide, manned by people from the Maritime Union of Australia with a loudhailer, saying, ‘You are not welcome. This is a picket line of the MUA.’ That is not the way to protect Australia.

It is even more disturbing because the member for Hunter, in one of the very few speeches he has attempted to give on defence this year, on 23 April at the National Security and Defence Election Series, was asked a question: ‘Are you able to share any thoughts on a coastguard?’ The answer was: ‘There are some difficult administrative decisions to be made in implementing that policy and we won’t be in a position to detail those, even pre-election, because it is too difficult.’ The Australian Labor Party and the Leader of the Opposition, before they are in government, are putting up the white flag and saying that it is too difficult, too hard, to protect the borders of this country. As the Treasurer said earlier in question time, Australians need to ask themselves: ‘If it is working well, why would you break it? Why would you put someone into government to be the Prime Minister of this country who has no policies, is a patsy for the union movement and, worse still, has no policy on the protection of our borders?’