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Minister announces customs patrol boat for Southern Ocean to protect Patagonian toothfish stocks; Shadow Minister argues for a full-time dedicated coastguard.

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Wednesday 17 December 2003

Minister announces customs patrol boat for Southern Ocean to protect Patagonian toothfish stocks; Shadow Minister argues for a full-time dedicate d coastguard


MARK COLVIN: Remember the three-week Customs chased after the alleged fish-poaching vessel Viarsa back in August and September? It ended with the Viarsa being brought to port in Cape Town, but largely because of international cooperation from the South Africans and others. 


Fish poachers in future may find that kind of attempted escape impossible, after the Prime Minister today announced a new high-tech Australian customs patrol boat, complete with deck-mounted machine gun and armed boarding party.  


The first priority of the new Southern Ocean patrol will be to protect valuable stocks of Patagonian toothfish. But the Federal Opposition says it's a short-term solution and it's used the announcement to argue again for a full-time dedicated Coastguard.  


Emma Griffiths reports. 


EMMA GRIFFITHS: Patagonian toothfish made headlines earlier this year when a foreign trawler allegedly made off with more than a million dollars of the rare breed from Australia's Antarctic Fishing Zone. 


Now, the Federal Government's spending up to $100 million over the next two years on an ice-strengthened ship, carrying a deck mounted machine gun and an armed customs boarding party to patrol the southern ocean and protect the Patagonian toothfish.  


Fisheries Minister Ian Macdonald.  


IAN MACDONALD: We really have to upgrade our enforcement capability, and this announcement by the Prime Minister today will show those organised criminal gangs that Australia is very, very serious, and that we do intend to protect our sovereignty, protect our fish stocks and protect our environment.  


EMMA GRIFFITHS: How active are these criminal gangs, as you call them, in the Southern ocean? 


IAN MACDONALD: They are very active, not quite as active in the Australian zone as they are in other parts of the Southern Ocean, but one of the great benefits from today's announcement will be that we will be able to work more cooperatively with the British and the South Africans, New Zealanders, and together I think we can form some sort of a Southern Ocean coalition that jointly will embark upon a major attack on this illegal fishing problem and all of the consequences that follow from illegal fishing. 


EMMA GRIFFITHS: Is one of these vessels enough? Do we need more to cope with this problem? 


IAN MACDONALD: One vessel will be sufficient. It will have a very significant capacity, and I think one vessel totally in our command, available 365 days a year will be able to make a real difference.  


And perhaps more importantly the pirates who have in the past come into our areas will now know that the Australian Government has a vessel permanently on call, it could be anywhere at anytime, it is armed, quite seriously armed and it will have crew with sidearms and capable of making a high seas boarding.  


All of those I hope, will mean that we will never have to use the facility, but if we do, we will, and the pirates should be under no misapprehension whatsoever on whether we'll use this new capability to fully protect Australia's sovereignty.  


EMMA GRIFFITHS: The Federal Opposition says the new vessel is a step in the right direction, but not enough.  


Opposition spokesman for Homeland Security, Robert McClelland. 


ROBERT MCCLELLAND: We're seeing a vessel allocated for 2 years to a limited fishery, but it for instance won't have any role on our northern borders where there was over 120 fisheries incursions last year and clearly it won't have a role in respect to policing our borders against gun smugglers or drug smugglers, and that's why we say the Government should be going the full monty and having an Australian coastguard.  


EMMA GRIFFITHS: Isn't the navy good enough to look after our Northern coastline? 


ROBERT MCCLELLAND: No, quite frankly it's not, because there's a whole range of various issues that arise in terms of border security. In this case, for instance, it involves the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, in some cases the Environment, in some cases Immigration, in some cases the Australian Federal police, in some cases Customs generally. 


And you've got all these different organisations with their own separate information silos, and no one's drawing together the intelligence as well as it could be if there was one organisation. 


EMMA GRIFFITHS: The Government argues those different organisations work well together. Senator Ian Macdonald says a coastguard would be another unnecessary level of bureaucracy. 


IAN MACDONALD: Unfortunately Labor in this case, as with most cases, just misses the point. The operation we have in effect at the moment with coastwatch, with customs, with Navy brings all the very best that Australia can put into this operation.  


A coastguard, determined or as suggested by Labor, would involve volunteers, it would involve another bureaucracy, it has a cost that is simply not affordable and it really doesn't rely upon the assets we currently have available.  


MARK COLVIN: Senator Ian MacDonald, ending Emma Griffiths' report.