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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
04/12/2015
Flag-of-convenience shipping in Australia

EVANS, Dr Benjamin, Assistant Secretary, Strategy Branch, Department of Immigration and Border Protection

[11:37]

CHAIR: I remind senators that the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted.

Officers are also reminded that any claim that it would be contrary to the public interest to answer a question must be made by a minister and should be accompanied by a statement setting out the basis for the claim. The committee has received your submission as submission 21. Do you wish to make any amendments or additions to your submission?

Dr Evans : No, thank you.

CHAIR: Dr Evans, I invite you to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions.

Dr Evans : To give a little bit of my background, I joined the department on 2 January this year. Prior to this, I had served in the Australian Customs and Border Protection service since 2001 in a variety of Canberra based and operational capacities. Most recently I was regional commander of our Queensland command so I am happy to answer questions both of policy and operational as far as I can.

Listening to previous witnesses, you have probably have more questions for me than you need an opening statement. I will draw out a couple of threads to start with. I think we have questions about the maritime crew visa, which is the visa that we issue to foreign crew members operating on ships that come into Australian ports and that operate in Australian waters. Mr Summers made some comments about our perception of risk around flag-of-convenience ships, and I would like to talk a little bit about that as well, in response to your questions. Our predominant concern around FOC ships relates to them operating as fishing vessels on the high seas, and I can talk a little bit more about that. You probably have a variety of other questions that will be around those things, so it is probably best that I pause there and let you make a start.

CHAIR: Thanks, Dr Evans. I would not mind cutting to the Sage Sagittarius. Mr Summers had said that the ship's captain was on a watch list. What is a watch list?

Dr Evans : A watch list is a list of foreign nationals about whom we might have a concern. I say 'might have a concern' rather than 'definitely have a concern'. It could be that a person has come to attention for being involved in the use in the past of a fraudulent passport. It could be that we believe they might have a criminal record. It could be that they have previously come to the attention of a law enforcement partner overseas. To cut to the chase on that one, I am not aware of the specific reasons that the master of that vessel was on a watch list, so I would like to take that question on notice. Depending upon why that master is on a watch list, we might have to come back to the committee and talk about how we provide you that information, because it may not be information we wish to make public, but it would be information we would be willing to provide to you.

CHAIR: This committee understands that, in terms of national security, but we will also ask—I would like to know and the committee would like to be supplied with the answer—how somebody can be on a watch list for whatever reason, have a death at sea, have another death coming through the Heads and then be able to sail out again. This does raise myriad questions.

Dr Evans : It would depend on why they are on a watch list. The other matter would be that, if that person does not come ashore, and depending on why we are interested in that person, we may not wish to go up the gangway or we may not have powers to go up the gangway and take that person into detention if they hold a valid visa.

CHAIR: I could take that. I am not asking for a matter of opinion. There are operational constraints around immigration and border control. Is that right?

Dr Evans : No. If a person holds a valid visa, then we would have no reason to take them into immigration detention. I am hypothesising, but in this particular case, if the master who held a visa had not committed an offence in Australian territory, then there are no grounds on which to take that person into detention. The purpose of the watch list is to allow us to make a decision as to whether we will issue a person a visa in the first place. It may be that, for the reasons a person is on a watch list, we will say that we might issue a visa anyway, but we are aware of that person.

CHAIR: I am sure that will raise a couple of questions, but let's go back to a flag-of-convenience vessel. You have a list of all the seafarers, from the captain all the way down?

Dr Evans : We do. There are a couple of elements to that. First and foremost, our expectation is that every foreign seafarer who comes into Australian port will have what we call a Maritime Crew visa, an MCV. We and the US are the only two countries in the world that issue visas to sea crews. We introduced our visa scheme in 2007. Prior to that, a foreign seafarer in Australian waters or an Australian port only needed their seafarer's book or a valid passport. With that, with the master's permission, they could leave the ship and go ashore. We introduced the Maritime Crew visa system to address what we perceived would be some of the national security risks that previous witnesses have talked about. The Maritime Crew visa does conduct a risk assessment of the person to whom the visa is issued. We do that through the information that is provided to us—for example, their passport, with details about that person's identity. Bear in mind there are other things that sit behind that. For example, certain passports are on INTERPOL watch lists, so, if there is an issue with a person or their passport, we will know about that from law enforcement partners. That is the first layer, if I can use that term.

The second layer is that, like our US counterparts, we receive the crew list and the cargo manifest of a ship coming to an Australian port 96 hours before that vessel comes into the Australian port. That allows us to conduct a second risk assessment. Bear in mind that things may have changed while the ship has been at sea. For example, we will take into account the last 10 ports the ship has called at. We will take into account whether any information has come to light on that ship or its crew while it has been in transit to Australia. We will then conduct a second risk assessment. That risk assessment will tell us whether we need to send officers down to board the ship to check documents, conduct a face-to-passport check on the crew and so on. We do that based on the information we receive while the ship is in transit to Australia. So we put together several sources and several layers of information to make an assessment about the risk a ship and its crew presents to Australia before it arrives.

CHAIR: So we have to rely on other nation's background checks.

Dr Evans : Absolutely. Fortunately or unfortunately that his unavoidable. Australia does not have large holdings of information about foreign nationals. We have to rely on overseas partners to do that.

CHAIR: Do you do any spot checks—like 'surprise, surprise' here we are we have turned up in Dampier or Darwin, and have an inspection to make sure everything is Mickey Mouse, or is it all done online?

Dr Evans : It is all done on the basis of a risk assessment.

CHAIR: Which is an email from the ship to you?

Dr Evans : No, not at all. Part of it is in the information that comes from the ship and from the ship's agent—the party in Australia that might be reporting on the cargo et cetera on behalf of the ship. It may also come from information that we have in our own intelligence holdings about the ship. Bear in mind that ships make repeat voyages to Australia, so we have our own holdings of information about ships. Other Australian government agencies have information holdings about ships and crew that we may look at if we have an interest in a particular vessel. On that basis we would make a decision to go and check a vessel.

CHAIR: Do you do surprise attacks?

Dr Evans : No, we try not to—

CHAIR: Surprise inspections?

Dr Evans : No, we try not to do anything on a random basis. Everything is targeted and risk assessed.

CHAIR: Sorry to cut in. Why is that?

Dr Evans : I will answer that question as I go.

Senator BULLOCK: There may be a little confusion here. You are talking about surprise visits.

CHAIR: Yes.

Senator BULLOCK: Surprise visits do not necessarily mean visits that are not pre-planned—

Dr Evans : The point I was going to make is that we certainly do not necessarily announce that we are coming.

Senator BULLOCK: I think that is what Senator Sterle was driving at.

CHAIR: Yes. But I am asking if you all of a sudden appear and say, 'Now we want to see who all these people are and we want to follow it up.' Because we have been told you are. It is like random drug testing.

Dr Evans : There are two elements to that. First and foremost we predominantly work in a targeted environment where we say that that vessel or its crew have come to our attention or are of interest to us, and we will go and look at that. Second, however, if we do have officers deployed to the waterfront for other reasons and they then believe they would like to check a ship they are empowered to do so.

CHAIR: Do you do that often?

Dr Evans : I could take that on notice.

Senator BULLOCK: Some of the comments in your commendably brief submission dovetail with the comments we heard this morning from Mr Crumlin. I just want to go to a couple. You say:

… there are features of [flag-of-convenience] registration, regulation and practice that organised crime syndicates or terrorist groups may seek to exploit.

These features are:

- a lack of transparency of the identity of shipowners and consequent impediment to holding the owner to account for a ship’s actions; and

- insufficient flag state regulatory enforcement and adherence to standards.

…   …   …

… [flag-of-convenience] ships may be used in a range of illegal activities, including illegal exploitation of natural resources, illegal activity in protected areas, people smuggling, and facilitating prohibited imports or exports.

Bearing that in mind—

Senator HEFFERNAN: [inaudible] have had some first-hand experience of that.

Senator BULLOCK: Yes, quite. Of the top 10 open-registry-flag states, which would you rate as the most likely to suffer from those features of a lack of transparency and a lack of regulatory enforcement?

Dr Evans : I think I will take that specific part of the question on notice.

Senator BULLOCK: That is the question.

Dr Evans : Yes, that is the question, so can I take that on notice because I would need—

Senator BULLOCK: Sure, because that would be of great interest.

Dr Evans: Indeed. I would need to check with colleagues inside the organisation as to how much we were prepared to say about our risk assessment on particular countries. However, can I make—

Senator BULLOCK: Just let me clarify the question. I am not asking you to say 'These people are crooks.' What I am asking you to say is, 'This particular state does not have the transparency we would like to see and does not appear to have the enforcement arrangements we would like to see.' I am not asking you to say that they are the hub of a terrorist network, just with respect to the features you mentioned in your report. It is a question of fact rather than opinion. I do not want you to cast aspersions on those states but merely render your judgment with respect to them.

Dr Evans: The answer I will give will not sound direct, but I will explain myself. If we use the example of the vessel we spoke about in our submission, the Kunlun, it has had 12 flag states in about a year. What we saw there was that the vessel was exploiting certain elements that some of the flag states offered. As Mr Summers pointed out in his evidence today, our key concern is around flag states where transparency of ownership is difficult or where the flag state itself, as Mr Summers has found out, is not responsive to inquiries about particular ships.

Our concern around the state itself, and even around the way its register is run is actually fairly agnostic. Let me go back a step. The reason we are concerned about the way in which flag states behave is because of the way in which our powers are separated. Once a vessel is in an Australian port we have the power to board it, to search it, to question the crew and to look at their passports, because it is in an Australian port. If a ship is on the high seas and we have suspicion it is engaged in an illegal activity, such as unregulated fishing, to board that ship to determine whether it has engaged in an unregulated activity, we need the permission of the flag state to do that. That is under the international law of the sea.

So the arrangement is that we, the department, through Maritime Border Command, have to make contact with the flag state and seek permission to board the ship. If the flag state is uncooperative or unresponsive a lot of the times it is not possible for us to board the ship at sea to determine whether there have been any activities of concern going on. So our concern around flag states, because of the remit of the department and our interests, goes less to matters of safety and payment of crew. All of those things are important, but the government has decided that other departments deal with that. Our key issue is whether we can board the vessel, whether we can talk to the master and the crew and whether we can determine that illegal or unregulated activities have been going on.

Senator BULLOCK: I have to stop you, because I just want to make it clear that my concern does not go to the extent to which you can effectively exercise your powers, either in a port or on the high seas. My question goes to those states that give rise to more concern than others with respect to—

Dr Evans: I will take that one on notice. You are looking at the top 10?

Senator BULLOCK: Within the top 10, which of those would give you the most concern. I am not setting you a month's homework here.

Dr Evans: Not at all. We will provide that information.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Would it be fair to say that in all of those states you would discover, as we have—and the Australian Wheat Board in Iraq is a really good example—that they are driven by facilitation—bribes? You would know that, surely.

Dr Evans: We would suspect it.

Senator HEFFERNAN: In other words, you are wasting your time.

Dr Evans: What we would say—and I think we said it in our submission—is that we would encourage the Parliament of Australia to be looking at ways in which we can improve flag-of-convenience states to be signatories to international conventions. This, particularly, goes to unregulated and foreign fishing. The key issue for us is that because the flag states are not signatories to some of the conventions around fishing and some of the signatories around environmental protection, as Mr Summers has pointed out, we have very limited opportunities to conduct enforcement activity. Until that is resolved it does make it quite difficult for us.

Senator HEFFERNAN: So we have to learn to think like the enemy.

Dr Evans : Perhaps. I would make the observation that we were able to find the means to legally board the Kunlun at sea. Because of the record of that ship, because of the frequent changes of flag state, we were, lawfully, able to board that ship to verify the flag state. That allowed us to voice our concerns to the next port of call of that ship so that they could conduct a search of the vessel.

Senator MADIGAN: You spoke earlier about visas for foreign crews when they arrive in our ports and you ask the ship's captain, officer, company—how would you rate the reliability of flag-of-convenience ships in supplying the department with the correct information for you to issue visas?

Dr Evans : Because it is often done through a ship's agent and because the ship's agent is often in Australia, we do not see all that much difference in the reliability of the information. For example, a ship coming into an Australian port often has a ship's agent in Australia and an Australian company that will be handling the reporting, to us, on behalf of that ship. I can say that we work closely with industry and ships agents to ensure that reporting is correct. We have the luxury that because we ask for the information a long way out, before the ship arrives in Australia, we can go back and seek clarification. That is the first part of my answer.

The second part of my answer is the expectation is that the members of the crew, the crew members of a foreign ship coming to an Australian port, will have the visa well before they come to Australia. In fact, a lot of shipping companies have large numbers of crew who hold a visa, just in case they come on a ship to Australia. In other words, there are many more visas out there than there are crew in an Australian port or in Australian waters, at any given moment. This is so that shipping lines can facilitate their business.

Senator MADIGAN: This is the MCV.

Dr Evans : This is the MCV. For us to issue that visa we have to collect a range of information about a person, in order to be able to do it and in order to be able to conduct a risk assessment, on that person, to issue the visa. So we have two sets of information. We have that information well before a ship or crew member arrives in Australia and we have the ability to go back and clarify the information, if we need to do that. It means that, broadly speaking, the information is as reliable from a flag-of-convenience ship as from any other ship. Part of the reason for that is we are not relying, solely, on the ship or the shipping line for the information. We have other sources of information. That helps us a lot.

Senator MADIGAN: Do you or your department acknowledge that there is a higher burden of security clearance on Australian mariners than there is on foreign crews, coming into this country, operating in our ports et cetera?

Dr Evans : I want colleagues who are more qualified to talk about the MSIC to do so, but I will make this observation: yes, the regimes are different. In my view, there are very good reasons for that. Again, my colleagues can correct me if I get this wrong, when they present to you or speak to you.

An MSIC allows much more access to an Australian port. It can allow constant access to an Australian port. A holder of a maritime crew visa can come off a ship, to take shore leave, with the master's permission. If they go missing, the master knows that they are missing and will report back to us, because there are significant penalties for facilitating a person getting into Australia without a visa. A maritime crew visa does not entitle a person to have a holiday in Australia. They are here for the purposes of being on a ship.

There are only three things you can do with a maritime crew visa. You can be on the ship, you can be ashore for short-term leave with the permission of the master, you can be signing off the ship and going to an Australian airport to depart, or you can be signing off the ship to sign on to another ship. So it is quite restricted.

Senator HEFFERNAN: If I pull into Sydney, and I have a visa and I walk off the ship to go up to the local strip club or something, if I never walk back onto the ship you will never know unless the master tells you.

Dr Evans : We will.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Is there something you have not told us?

Dr Evans : I am about to assist you, Senator. About two years ago we introduced part AAA to the Customs Act. That part of the act requires cargo terminal operators to keep records of visitors going on and off their premises, and that is basically a person not holding an MSIC. So when the crew member comes off a ship the cargo terminal operator is obliged to keep a record that that person has gone out through the gate, and we then request that information from cargo terminal operators about who has been going on and off the waterfront.

Senator HEFFERNAN: So you do not have to rely on the ship's captain. I thought you implied you did.

Dr Evans : No. That is one source of information. As I have tried to draw the thread through my evidence, we rely on multiple sources of information for exactly the reasons you are pointing out.

Senator HEFFERNAN: In your travails, the person who would make the note: would that involve a security firm?

Dr Evans : It is dependent upon the cargo terminal operator and how they have decided to make the arrangements. They may well use their security contractor.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Do you have a working relationship with the Crime Commission?

Dr Evans : Absolutely. I can probably anticipate what you are going to say.

Senator HEFFERNAN: It was shocking. Half the labour force were on $15 an hour and Centrelink payments, and one of the providers was a known criminal. We can talk about it now because that was a few years ago. Hopefully you have sorted all that out.

Dr Evans : As both Mr Crumlin and Mr Summers have made clear—and my colleagues from the relevant department can speak to it when they give their evidence—that is what has resulted in the increases in the MSIC's interest in criminal background and criminal records to try to mitigate some of that. But it is a very different circumstance to issuing a visa to a person who is here temporarily. Bear in mind that we issue visas to millions of travellers to Australia a year, and there are similar background checks that go on. As you would be aware through other issues that we are involved in, when we discover that a person who has a criminal conviction is on a visa in Australia, we take them into detention and remove them from Australia. So we do take that element of our visa system quite seriously.

CHAIR: So the MCVs are issued to all seafarers who want to come—

Dr Evans : If they apply. They have to have one to come here. If they do not, we would probably make the decision to restrict them on board, much as our US counterparts do.

CHAIR: So the ship can still dock even though they are not all MCVd.

Dr Evans : Absolutely. It is unusual, but then we would make the decision to restrict that seafarer on board. If you are a foreign national you cannot be in Australia without a valid visa.

Senator RICE: You would, or probably?

Dr Evans : We would.

CHAIR: Sorry, I do not get it, Dr Evans. You have to have an MCV?

Dr Evans : You do, yes.

CHAIR: But if you do not apply for one and you are on a ship, the ship can still dock and you can go like that to the Australian Border Protection—

Dr Evans : They would be restricted on board the ship.

CHAIR: So why do you have to have one?

Dr Evans : Two things. First, for the majority of seafarers coming to Australia we can conduct the background check. We can conduct the risk check for the visa. If they do not apply for a visa, then they do not get to land in Australia.

CHAIR: But wouldn't that be a red flag if someone says, 'I don't want an MCV because I don't want you to know who I am.'

Dr Evans : We would find out about that person when we got the report of the ship's crew, and yes, that would raise a red flag and it would lead us to go and visit the vessel, conduct a check on the crew and then restrict crew members on board.

Senator BULLOCK: Could it not just be a reflection of the fact that the operator of the vessel, because they might not be a great employer, does not want their crew coming ashore?

Dr Evans : I will not go to the last part of that question but as to the first part of the question it is, as I understand it, always the master's prerogative to restrict the crew on board whether they have a visa or not.

Senator BULLOCK: So you could have a ship visit where 100 per cent of the crew did not have a visa because the operator had no intention of letting the crew onshore.

Dr Evans : And we would seek to penalise the operator.

Senator BULLOCK: How?

Dr Evans : A fine.

Senator RICE: On what basis?

Dr Evans : It is a migration act offence. I do not know whether any of you have travelled overseas recently but if you have you would be aware that when you go to get back on the plane to Australia they check your passport at check-in. We have powers under the migration act that say you cannot transport a person to Australia without a visa, and there are penalties for doing so. Now with a ship there is obviously not a check-in so we are relying in part on the information we get from the ship to discover whether there is anybody on board without a visa. It would be impractical to hold a ship offshore or to prevent its arrival in an Australian port if there were a small number of people on board without a visa. That said, however, we do have powers to direct ships to go to a place and we do have powers to direct ships to not go into a port. In your scenario, Senator Bullock, if a ship turned up that had its entire crew without visas and we knew nothing about them then that would certainly trigger a different response.

CHAIR: Are you able to give us some examples of cases where captains have not provided—

Dr Evans : No, I do not have specific examples.

CHAIR: You do not have any?

Dr Evans : It is an unusual circumstance, however.

CHAIR: But it has happened?

Dr Evans : I believe it has. I can certainly take that on notice.

CHAIR: All right you can take that on notice. You talked about fines. What sorts of fines were you talking about?

Dr Evans : Certainly I can answer for in the airline sector—and I will correct the record on this if I get it wrong. In the airline sector I think the fine is approximately $5,000 per person and they bear the cost of the carriage back to wherever the person came from or wherever the person boarded. So it is quite an impost on the airline. I can certainly take on notice what we would do in the maritime environment. It is an unusual occurrence. The ship is taking them away anyway. As you pointed out, Senator Bullock, masters are reluctant to depart without all of their crew.

CHAIR: With the MV Portland will the replacement foreign seafarers have MSICs and MCVs?

Dr Evans : Are they foreigners or Australians?

CHAIR: No. The Australians have got the big A—

Dr Evans : No. If they are a foreign crew coming to work on a ship that is operating in Australian waters or an Australian port coming to Australia they will have a maritime crew visa, a MCV.

CHAIR: And a MSIC?

Dr Evans : No.

CHAIR: They will not have a MSIC even though they will be plying between Australian ports?

Dr Evans : That might be a question for my colleagues from the department that administers MSIC but my understanding is that they would be treated as foreign crew. It might depend on the status of the vessel. I will let my colleagues from the relevant department answer that.

CHAIR: That is not under your remit—

Dr Evans : No.

CHAIR: We will ask that of the department.

Senator RICE: Dr Evans, there has been a very interesting discussion about the maritime crew visas. You have some checks and balances, but the summary of your submission states:

The regulatory, registration and compliance practices of the so-called FOC states have the potential to create vulnerabilities for Australia’s enforcement of laws in its maritime domain.

These vulnerabilities add to the attractiveness of FOC shipping to entities such as organised crime syndicates and other entities seeking to illegally exploit natural resources both within and outside the AEEZ.

Obviously you still have got concerns and issues with that.

Dr Evans : Absolutely, Senator Rice. The key part of the submission that you read into the record is in the maritime zone, so our key concern around the lack of transparency around some ship registers is their ability to conduct enforcement activities on those ships while they are at sea.

We are much more confident when a ship comes into an Australian port, because it has the reporting requirements that I mentioned, and we have clear powers to board, search and talk to the crew. When a ship is at sea, the international Convention on the Law of the Sea comes into effect and boarding a ship—except in, say, search-and-rescue situations—requires the consent of the flag state. As I mentioned previously—and as Mr Summers mentions—flag states can be extremely unresponsive. Without that permission to board, it is not lawful to do so. Our real concerns about the exploitation of some shipping registers and their lack of transparency is front of mind, first and foremost, our exportation and marine resources—so illegal and unregulated fishing.

Senator RICE: The article in The Australian in July—the interview with Rear Admiral Michael Noonan—

Dr Evans : Commander of Border Protection Command—that is correct.

Senator RICE: says:

Admiral Noonan said the US had introduced legislation to extend the reach of its criminal laws, by enabling US authorities to prosecute alleged criminals ­involved in illegal maritime activity, even if it had not occurred in US waters.

He said he believed it was 'absolutely' worth considering similar laws in Australia, and a legislative working group had been set up to look at this.

Can you comment on—

Dr Evans : I would make the observation that Norway has introduced similar laws. I think—and this is predominantly, because Norway has a significant fisheries industry and fisheries that they are seeking to protect; you need to protect your fisheries—Australia is in a similar position where we would be seeking to protect significant fisheries. Laws like that can be fraught, because it can bring you into conflict with flag states. There are longstanding conventions about when you can and cannot project your legislation and how far globally you can project it. Our US colleagues have a much greater capacity to project power. I think it certainly would be worth the Australian parliament considering whether it would want to look at legislation like that, acknowledging that it can be very challenging because it can cause friction with neighbouring states. It can cause friction with register states when you are really saying; 'We're going to carve out an element of a longstanding convention and say under certain circumstances, 'We will be able to project or enforce Australian law in places where we traditionally do not do it.' So there are global examples—it can be done—and it would be something that would need to be carefully considered. But from the admiral's point of view, it certainly goes—and that is the reason Admiral Noonan raises that point—a long way to resolving his operational issues that he quite rightly has to deal with on water, which are: 'I have a suspicion. My men and women at sea have a suspicion that an offence has been committed. How can I get on board that vessel to determine whether that is the case?'

Senator RICE: And it would overcome the issue that you have been outlining of having to get the approval of—

Dr Evans : The consent of the flag state.

Senator RICE: The consent of the flag state, which may be one of 10 states that Senator Bullock was asking you to expand on.

Dr Evans : Indeed.

Senator RICE: That is certainly something that I think we should be looking at. I want to go back to the maritime crew visa and just get your assessment—I know I am not allowed to ask your personal opinion as a public servant. Given that we have to rely upon information that is provided by the state, what is your view of how robust those maritime crew visas are, particularly in the context of increasing numbers of foreign crewed and flag-of-convenience shipping that, under the current proposals, is virtually going to be all Australian shipping?

Dr Evans : Obviously, I will not go to the second part of that question about Australian shipping. My view is that the maritime crew visa is as robust as the rest of our visa system. Our entire visa system does rely on information that is provided by the applicant for the visa. However, some of the information that that applicant provides they do not control—for example, a passport. You do not get to choose the information that is on your passport; governments issue passports. But, as I have said a couple of times—and I believe it is an important point, so if you would indulge me to repeat myself—we use other sources of information; we do not rely solely on what the applicant tells us. There are watch lists that relate to documents as opposed to people. Around the world, law enforcement and border agencies put the details of fraudulent documents into a system that is internationally available or into systems that we share with each other so that, when we get an application, we can check the document and the details of the person against external sources.

CHAIR: Do the ship's agents have any experience or training in spotting fraudulent documents?

Dr Evans : We do not expect them to do so. Often, they will not see the document; they will put down the passport number that they are given. The application for the visa will take place offshore, like all visas. You must have a visa before you come to Australia.

CHAIR: Sure, but did you not say that you rely upon the ship's agents because a lot of these shipping companies have agents here in Australia and so everything is tickety-boo?

Dr Evans : Sorry, I have not made clear the distinction between the two sets of information. The ship's agents in Australia report the information about the ship when it is in transit, and that is the information we need to see the ship's cargo manifest, to see the crew list and to know which port it is coming to, when and where it is going to berth and what it is here for. That is one set of information. That information does not relate to the maritime crew visa. The maritime crew visa information is like any other visa application. It can be put in by the applicant crew member, but it is usually put in by the shipping line, the crewing agent or whatever it happens to be offshore, just like any other visa application.

CHAIR: But are they trained?

Dr Evans : No, and again I would make the observation that they do not need to be because we will be able to check that the passport number is valid. We will be able to check whether that passport or that name has ever held a visa before and what kind. We will be able to check whether we know anything about that person and about the passport. When vessels arrives in Australia, we board vessels and do a face-to-passport check on the crew, where a Border Force officer is qualified to look for fraudulent documents. We do not do that for every vessel, however; we do that on a risk basis. For example, to give you a sense of how we would assess risk, there are lots of vessels that come into Australian ports off international voyages that are on the same voyage with the same crew periodically. We know the ship; we know the crew; we know the master; we certainly would know whether AMSA or the Office of Transport Security have had any interactions with the vessel; we would know what the last the last 10 ports of the vessel are; we would know whether any of those last ports had any concern. There are a range of streams of information that allow us to say, 'We need to go and board that vessel and check the crew thoroughly,' or, 'That's one that we're aware of and comfortable with.'

Senator RICE: Could you provide on notice what proportion of vessels would get those face-to-face checks?

Dr Evans : I was just trying to get that information from my office because I knew you would ask. I did not in time, so I will take that one on notice, thank you.

Senator RICE: You keep checks from the ship's captain but also, as you were saying, the checks of people leaving the port. I am interested to know just how many foreign seafarers on MCVs are leaving Australian ports.

Dr Evans : I can take that one on notice, but I can give you a bit of context on that, if you like. For example—and this is based on my personal experience—when a cruise ship comes into Hamilton, on the Brisbane River, and berths to discharge its passengers, large numbers of the crew go ashore for a couple of hours to buy supplies. On a cruise ship that size, you might have 2,000 or 3,000 passengers and you might have 1,000 crew. Maybe approximately half of the crew will take a bus into town, they will buy some supplies and they will come back to the ship.

It would be very difficult for me to answer the question at that level of specificity—what proportion of the crew do that. We of course have an apparatus set up with the cruise ship that they actually have to pass through the Customs line, through the Border Force line, to be able to do that.

For crew on commercial vessels in a commercial port, shore leave is at the discretion of the master. I will check whether we have any records of that or any means of obtaining records. I suspect the answer will be no, but what I will do is have a look for some information on general noncompliance in the maritime crew visa environment, by which I mean—to go to your previous question, Senator Heffernan—how many just do not come back and end up in a detention centre.

Senator RICE: Exactly. That was the next figure I was going to ask for—what proportion of them do not comply with their leave provisions one way or another.

Dr Evans : Let me describe it in this way. If you are the holder of a maritime crew visa, with your master's consent you are entitled to take shore leave for a very limited period, perhaps five days, before returning to the ship. You are entitled to sign off the ship and sign on to another ship or depart Australia within five days. If your intention is not to return to the ship, you will not hold a valid visa. Your visa is valid for the purpose for which it was issued to you, which was to be a crew member on a ship. Once you are not a crew member on a ship, either on shore leave, signing off and leaving or signing off and signing on to another ship, then you no longer hold a valid visa under the law and you will be taken into immigration detention and then removed from Australia.

Senator RICE: If the master does not report the person as missing, are you confident that you have the checks to enable you to know about every person who is then in Australia without a valid visa?

Dr Evans : It is impossible to have a watertight answer to that question. But I would be much more confident about maritime crew visas—because of the controls around ports and the way in which ports record visitors going in and out, both under the port security regime and under the new part of the Customs Act I described previously—than I would be about an English backpacker overstaying their visa.

Senator RICE: Thanks, Dr Evans.

Senator HEFFERNAN: I just want to skate to the edge of the icerink for you. In your role of border protection and security, are you familiar with the greatest threat? This committee's dealt with it. It is not the Chinese having a 99-year lease on Darwin harbour or the fifth most senior People's Liberation Army person having a visit to our operations centre at Bungendore the other day; it is actually that we do not have the required fuel reserves. We can be down to two days fuel reserves. Do you blokes think about that very often? The standard is 50 to 70 days, and we are down to two days, at times.

CHAIR: We have done an inquiry, Senator Heffernan.

Senator RICE: That is a fuel security inquiry rather than one on flags of convenience.

Senator HEFFERNAN: No, this is bloody important. It is no good having Border Protection if you cannot fuel them to go and do it.

Unidentified speaker: No, we agree.

Dr Evans : I will answer that.

Senator HEFFERNAN: You can take that on notice if you want.

Dr Evans : No, I will answer your question, if I may, Senator Heffernan, and, if you indulge me, I will give a contrary view when I finish. First and foremost, and this is a very straightforward answer, it is neither my department's nor my responsibility to think about that. However, I do work in a strategy area, which means I think about lots of the global threats and risks that are out there. So in that sense, yes, I do think about it.

Finally, Senator Heffernan, because I know it will be dear to your heart and I hope you will indulge me, a very learned colleague of mine who worked in the department of agriculture once said to me that the greatest threat to Australia's national security is Chinese grandmothers at Chinese New Year—the mooncakes with the egg in them! I will offer a contrary view on what I think is the greatest threat.

Senator HEFFERNAN: That is very much a military opinion that I just told you.

Dr Evans : Like I said, I think about those things, but it is not my responsibility.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Effectively, this committee looked at it. We do not seem to have had a response. It is a grave issue.

CHAIR: It has been swept under the carpet.

Dr Evans : Senator, I am not disputing your point. Yes, our ability to operate border protection relies on having diesel for our boats and all of those things.

Senator HEFFERNAN: My point was you are in a position where we have to make sure that one thing is not compartmentalised.

Dr Evans : Absolutely.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Heffernan. I want to summarise very quickly. It is your words here, Dr Evans, or the department's. In the last paragraphs:

The regulatory, registration and compliance practices of the so-called FOC states have the potential to create vulnerabilities for Australia's enforcement of laws in its maritime domain.

Also:

These vulnerabilities add to the attractiveness of FOC shipping to entities such as organised crime syndicates and other entities seeking to illegally exploit natural resources both within and outside the AEEZ.

Dr Evans : That is correct.

CHAIR: I might put on notice that we may want to delve into that a little later, but you might want to be in camera; I am not quite sure. We may seek to—

Dr Evans : To save the committee some time in that sense, I would make the suggestion that maybe you would like to put those questions on notice. I have not brought people with me from maritime border command or our intelligence area. So rather than waste your time by going in camera—

CHAIR: Oh, not today.

Dr Evans : I will take that on notice. It might be worthwhile for you to consider the questions you have for the department, and we would be very happy to do what we can.

CHAIR: Thanks, Dr Evans. I will talk with my colleagues, and we may even seek a briefing.

Dr Evans : That would probably be the best way to do it, if I can proffer that advice.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr Evans. We will now take a break, and we will be back to hear from the department.

Proceedings suspended from 12:26 to 13:15