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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30569

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (6:47 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

In a statement made before question time today, I outlined the serious circumstances surrounding the entry of a Norwegian flag vessel, the MV Tampa, into Australian waters surrounding Christmas Island. That vessel entered our territorial waters in defiance of a direction given by Australia. In the absence of firm action on the part of Australia, it could have led to the illegal entry of the persons on board into Australia, thus undermining Australia's control over its sovereign territory.

Those who enter our territorial waters contrary to an express direction from the government should not be rewarded by being allowed to stay in our waters or, even worse, by having the opportunity to enter our land territory.

While the government believes that there is appropriate legal authority at present, for more abundant caution this legislation will ensure that there is no doubt about the government's ability to order such vessels to leave our territorial waters.

Section 4 of the proposed bill enables an authorised officer to order a vessel that is within the outer limits of the territorial sea to be taken outside the territorial sea. That order would cover all persons on board the vessel. A provision has been included to ensure that the order is effective even if the master of the vessel subsequently claims that the master was not on board the vessel at the time or could not understand the order. Also, the bill provides authority for the ship to be taken outside the territorial sea if the master of the vessel refuses to comply with the order.

One of the difficulties facing Australian officers in dealing with vessels involved in people-smuggling is that people on board often seek to avoid preventive action by jumping overboard. Also, it may be necessary for humanitarian reasons to take people off a vessel subject to the order for medical treatment. Section 6 of the bill authorises an officer to return such persons to the ship subject to a direction under section 4 of the bill.

The protection of our sovereignty, including Australia's sovereign right to determine who shall enter Australia, is a matter for the Australian government and this parliament. Consequently, sections 4, 8 and 9 ensure that a direction given under section 4, and actions taken as a consequence of that direction, will not be able to be challenged in any court in Australia. In particular, the bill confirms that the persons on board a vessel at the time a direction is given will not be able to seek to delay their removal from the territorial sea by making a claim for refugee status under the Migration Act. However, the minister will have a non-compellable power to allow such a claim to be made.

Also officers, and those assisting them, taking actions authorised by the bill will be protected from civil or criminal proceedings in respect of those actions.

It is important that this bill, for the reasons I have outlined of more abundant caution, cover actions taken and to be taken in respect of the MV Tampa. Therefore the bill, on entry into force, will operate from 9 a.m. today, Australian Capital Territory time.

As I noted earlier, this bill will confirm our ability to remove to the high seas those vessels and persons on board that have entered the territorial waters under Australian sovereignty contrary to our wishes. It is essential to the maintenance of Australian sovereignty, including our sovereign right to determine who will enter and reside in Australia.

This is an unusual bill for unusual circumstances. I am seeking, unusually, the authority and the support of the parliament to facilitate the passage of the bill through all stages in both houses of parliament tonight. I appreciate the courtesy extended to me and to the government by the opposition in giving leave for the introduction of this measure. I ask the opposition to support the measure so that it can pass into law as soon as possible.

The government have embarked on a course of action which we believe is a lawful course of action. It is a course of action that is overwhelmingly in Australia's national interest. It is not a time, having embarked upon that course of action, to leave any stone unturned so that any doubt could be raised as to our capacity to carry through with that course of action. It is our advice that the actions we have taken to date are properly grounded in existing Australian law. But, as every member of this House will know, the law is often an unpredictable thing. For more abundant caution, I sought the advice of the Attorney-General and his advisers. As a result of that request, this bill has been drafted very quickly and very professionally. I thank the Attorney-General, and I thank the officers of the Attorney-General's Department who have cooperated in the preparation of this bill in a very short period of time.

As I said, it is an unusual situation, but it does require a very quick, comprehensive and unambiguous response from the representatives of the Australian people. It is in the national interest that this vessel not be allowed to remain in Australian territorial waters. It is in our national interest that this vessel be returned to international waters. It is in the national interest that we have the power to prevent beyond any argument people infringing the sovereignty of this country. One of the great enduring responsibilities of a government is to protect the integrity of its borders. There is no doubt that the integrity of the borders of Australia has been under increasing threat from the rising flood of unauthorised arrivals.

The circumstances surrounding the Tampa are particular but they are nonetheless a metaphor for the dilemma that this country faces. It is a dilemma that can only be resolved in the medium to longer term by the sort of cooperative actions of which I spoke earlier this afternoon. In commending this bill to the parliament, I again say to the opposition—to their representatives in this House and also in the other place—that it is in the national interest that this bill go through tonight. It is in the national interest that, in legal terms, what we have done today is put beyond all shadow of doubt. It is in the national interest that the courts of Australia do not have the right to overturn something that rightly belongs to the determination of the Australian people, as expressed through their representatives in this parliament.

Mr SPEAKER —I understand from consultation with the Clerk that the Prime Minister, for understandable reasons, does not have an explanatory memorandum available at this stage but the intention is that it will be presented later. Could I have leave of the House to agree to that later presentation of the explanatory memorandum?

Leave granted.

Mr SPEAKER —Is leave granted to continue the debate?

Leave granted.