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Wednesday, 4 December 2002
Page: 7144

Senator FERGUSON (2:13 PM) —My question is to Senator Hill, the Minister for Defence. Will the minister inform the Senate how the Howard government's strong stand on border protection has helped stem the flow of illegal boat arrivals? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies? What would be the financial implications if any of these policies were implemented?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I thank Senator Ferguson for his question. I can advise the Senate that there have been no illegal entrants via people smugglers in the last 12 months, which is a great achievement in terms of the policy of the Howard government. I particularly wish to give credit to the Royal Australian Navy and the Customs Service through its Coastwatch organisation. This multitiered response has proven to be, at least at this time, 100 per cent successful. It is a great credit to the officials who have carried out this task in the field. I was given some figures that indicated that Customs Coastwatch, which of course operates 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, expects to fly almost 22,000 hours of surveillance and patrol more than 350 million square kilometres of ocean this financial year.

What the government has done is rely on Coastwatch, through not only its intelligence but its assets in terms of ship assets and aircraft, to patrol the waters surrounding Australia. Further out, Coastwatch is complemented by the assets of the Royal Australian Navy—in particular, the 15 patrol vessels of the Royal Australian Navy and long-range surveillance aircraft. This has provided, as I said, both the intelligence and the capability to address the issue. It has clearly proven to be an effective deterrent and the government and, I think, the people of Australia are obviously pleased that people smugglers, at least up to this time, have largely been effectively dealt with.

If the record in relation to this particular issue is one of 100 per cent success, how could that be improved upon? It was interesting that to that background Mr Crean, who has been pressed to come up with a policy, last week said that Labor has a policy which will be more effective than the government's in relation to border protection. More effective than 100 per cent successful? We thought: `This will be interesting. Finally, a policy from the new Crean opposition—something that is new, novel and interesting.' And what did he offer? He offered a rehash of the old Beazley policy. One of the few policies of the last election of Mr Beazley was for a coastguard. And so Mr Crean, pressed to come up with a policy in his term as Leader of the Opposition, gave us a rehash of the Beazley coastguard.

What was it? It proposed: spend another $600 million by creating a new tier of protection somewhere between the Customs Service and the Royal Australian Navy; buy for them three ships and three helicopters and set up a whole new administration in law enforcement. Imagine the training of a whole new level of enforcement in terms of helicopter operations off ships, marinising helicopters and buying the equipment! It was $600 million for three ships. What would three ships add to the 15 patrol vessels of the Royal Australian Navy? Absolutely nothing. It proposed three more ships, however, and a totally new administration. Spend $600 million and say that you have now got a policy that can achieve more than 100 per cent success! What a poor attempt—his first attempt at policy. If there were a spare $600 million, why wouldn't you buy three more ships for the Navy or three more ships for Customs? Surely Mr Crean can do better than this. (Time expired)