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Monday, 6 December 1999
Page: 12878


Mr SLIPPER (9:08 PM) —I would at this time like to thank honourable members for their careful consideration of the Crimes at Sea Bill 1999 and their valuable contribution to this very important debate, and I include the honourable members for Denison, Throsby, Lowe, Hughes, Curtin, Petrie, Cook and Sturt within that particular description. This is a particularly important measure designed to enhance the certainty and effectiveness of Australia's criminal laws in the seas surrounding Australia.

Since the bill was introduced into the House, there have been two developments which have required amendments to the bill. Firstly, a government amendment was made to reflect an agreement reached between the Commonwealth and the state parliamentary counsel to overcome minor discrepancies that had emerged in the wording of the bills in each jurisdiction. Slight changes of wording—for example, `territory' to `area'—have been made so that the wording of the Commonwealth bill will accord precisely, as indeed it should, with the agreed form of wording for the uniform scheme.

The honourable member for Denison has put forward an amendment concerning part 4 of the bill, which was to regulate the enforcement of criminal laws in area A of what was known as the Australia-Indonesia zone of cooperation in the Timor Gap. The government agrees with the honourable member for Denison that part 4 should be removed but for reasons that are completely unrelated to the mischief making that lies behind the opposition amendment.

The government had discussions with the honourable member for Denison and part 4 was premised on Australia's treaty relationship with Indonesia governing cooperation in the Timor Gap. It is pretty clear that, in view of recent developments in relation to East Timor, part 4 no longer reflects the current position in relation to the Timor Gap. While amendments are being developed to deal with criminal law enforcement in the Timor Gap to take into account changed circumstances, it is proposed that part 4 be omitted as an interim measure.

This was the first opportunity since the introduction of the bill for the amendments to be introduced. I would emphasise that the government had decided to remove part 4 well before the unhelpful intervention by the honourable member for Denison. In fact, the honourable member for Denison has missed additional amendments consequential to the omission of part 4, and the government will supplement the omission of part 4 with these additional amendments. Provisions to replace part 4 will be formulated as soon as possible.

I would now like to turn to a number of the points made by the people who contributed to the debate. The honourable member for Denison, who is now present in the chamber, was kind enough to praise the government's bill as an instrument promoting uniformity and certainty in determining the applicable criminal law and law enforcement in this country. The government emphatically agrees with him and with other honourable members who made similar comments.

In fact, the criticism of the bill by the honourable member for Denison was restricted to the inclusion of part 4 of the bill, which was based on the presumption of Australian-Indonesian cooperation in the Timor Gap. I have already outlined the response of the government to the amendment by the honourable member for Denison to omit part 4 and his related amendment items 2 and 3. However, I just want to stress—and I want to put the record straight for anyone who happens to be listening—that the government had indeed intended to omit part 4 at the earliest opportunity following recent developments in relation to East Timor.

The honourable member for Lowe tried to suggest that the government had not appropriately informed the honourable member for Denison of the intentions of the government with respect to the removal of part 4. The simple fact of the matter is that the office of the Minister for Justice and Customs had informed the honourable member for Denison of the intention of the government well before his contribution to this debate on 25 November. The honourable member for Denison chose to go ahead and criticise the government for being insensitive to East Timor, knowing full well that the government intended to omit part 4 at the earliest opportunity. It is almost as though his office had done all the hard work preparing the media release and he felt that that hard work was not to be lost. It had to be issued because his staff had worked so hard.

The honourable member for Throsby questioned why the government had chosen to proceed with the bill at this point in time. He suggested that to do so was insensitive to the people of East Timor. The Prime Minister and this entire government has a very proud record in relation to East Timor. We reversed the actions and inaction of governments over many years, and we have taken a world leadership position in recognising and respecting the rights of the people of East Timor. In fact, our nation has grown in stature around the world because of the very strong stand that we have taken.

The honourable member for Throsby suggested that the government should have sat on its hands. I think he said, `Why does the government not wait until the situation in East Timor has stabilised?' The simple answer to this is that the bill should proceed because it is important to put in place a uniform national scheme which will simplify the rules for determining criminal law that applies to crimes at sea and ensure more effective law enforcement.

The honourable member for Sturt, in a very competent contribution, noted that this bill finally updated Australia's legislation with respect to international law. He pointed out that for too long we have had a law which was not entirely appropriate. This bill will improve Australia's ability to prosecute crimes committed at sea which previously has been hampered by less than comprehensive and adequate legislation.

The honourable member for Cook highlighted some ludicrous examples which exist under the 1979 act and which will be redressed by this legislation. The member for Cook pointed out that it has taken some time to take steps to update and improve the inadequacies of the 1979 act, but it is a time consuming process, as most honourable members would appreciate, to achieve a uniform, complementary, Commonwealth, state and territory scheme. The parliament and this government have achieved this. The member for Cook noted the importance of this particular bill, as did other members on this side of the House, in improving the crimes at sea legislation.

The honourable member for Petrie highlighted how important this legislation is, and I want to thank her publicly for drawing attention to the merit of this bill in clarifying the often confusing applications of the law pursuant to the 1979 legislation. The honourable member for Curtin—and she herself is an erudite lawyer—recognised and identified the myriad issues relating to the law of the sea and in fact referred to its impact on the state of Western Australia, which she competently represents in this place, and its vast coastline.

The honourable member for Lowe—as I said, maybe unwittingly, maybe otherwise—misrepresented the position of the government and suggested that we had not in fact informed the honourable member for Denison. Yet, as I have made absolutely and completely clear, the government was up front, the government was honest and the government approached the opposition and pointed out to the member for Denison our intention, which was to remove part 4 from this bill at the earliest possible opportunity. The member for Lowe also wrongly suggested that the government has in some way created confusion between this bill and people-smuggling issues.

I just want to point out that the coastal surveillance reforms and the Crimes at Sea Bill 1999 complement each other by removing gaps in the existing criminal law and law enforcement regime. However, the Crimes at Sea Bill does something very important and quite distinct. The Crimes at Sea Bill applies the general criminal laws of the states to their adjacent areas to cover ordinary offences including murder, theft and sexual assault. The coastal surveillance reforms supplement this general state legal regime with special Commonwealth powers and offences to combat matters such as people-smuggling and illegal immigration. Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, you would be aware, although some of your colleagues are not, that these aspects are quite distinct and there is no problem or overlap or confusion.

We all know that we live in a world where people and goods are extremely mobile. Gaps in our system of criminal law and in our law enforcement mechanisms can be exploited wherever they may be found. That is why the Commonwealth, the states and the Northern Territory of Australia have worked together to come up with a uniform and unified crimes at sea scheme. This is why each jurisdiction, regardless of its political complexion, has been able to sit down and agree to enter into an arrangement for the effective enforcement of the scheme. The agreement by the Commonwealth, the states and the Northern Territory to enact the uniform crimes at sea scheme shows what can be achieved when governments work together to achieve practical solutions to practical problems on behalf of the people of this great nation.

It is with a great deal of pleasure that I commend this bill to the chamber. I present the supplementary explanatory memorandum.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.