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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5508

Senator JOHNSTON (Western Australia) (10:52): In the short time I have to speak today on this Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012 I want to deal with an aspect that has been seldom referred to in this very emotive debate. There has been a lot of hand wringing and a lot of reference has been made to the rights of people who have voluntarily paid quite large sums of money and gone upon the high seas of their own free will and then, with information received from Australian supporters, telephoned various Customs, naval and other officials in Australia to come and get them.

The people I am referring to who have rights and who have been needlessly put in harm's way are, of course, those very fine members of the Australian Defence Force, particularly the Royal Australian Navy. They have been needlessly exposed to extreme danger and risk by this massive policy failure, probably the greatest policy failure in the history of our country. It is all very well for people to get up and talk about the rights of these refugees, these illegal entry people who are coming upon the high seas and expectant of first-class treatment, putting our Navy personnel at enormous risk, but those Navy personnel have lives to live. Those sailors have wives, husbands and children, and this policy has put them at enormous risk.

Twenty-two thousand people have arrived by sea since 2007. All of them, almost without exception, have been processed successfully and, may I say, compassionately and professionally by members of the Royal Australian Navy. What about the rights of those sailors, needlessly put in harm's way? Many of them undertake a nine-day turnaround from home base Darwin out to Christmas Island then a number of days patrolling, picking up these boats and then delivering them to Christmas Island or to whenever they can. Several members of the Armidale class Force Element Group regularly work through their eight-week on/four-week off cycle on the high seas—many of them work 12 weeks straight—doing nothing more or less than operating a taxi service for this massive policy meltdown and failure. What about the rights of those people?

I read an article by Chris Kenny in the Australian in July this year and I put on the record some of the things that he said. Of course, this is something that senators opposite do not want to hear because they are hideously embarrassed by this massive backflip, this classic policy failure that has brought derision and scorn down upon all of them. The journalist said:

For these people at the front line of the border protection dilemma, the day-to-day practicalities are more important than the parlour games of the political debate. The crews typically rotate for eight weeks onboard then four weeks onshore, although the pressures are so high now that five sailors recently had to sail through their rostered onshore period.

He further said:

They observe that many asylum-seekers appear well clothed and organised. Apparently a sailor recently was admonished by an asylum-seeker who wanted more care taken with his bag because it contained a laptop. Another sailor lamented; 'Last I checked, I was not a baggage handler at the airport, but a sailor in the Royal Australian Navy.'

I share some empathy and sympathy with that sailor and with all of these sailors who have been reduced to nothing more or less than taxi drivers. What about their rights? It is all very well to be talking about the rights of people who pay large sums of money—what about the rights of sailors?

I now turn to the coronial inquest into the death of five Afghanis on board a boat in April 2009. Mr Greg Cavanagh, the coroner in Darwin, a very learned and respected jurist, delivered his decision on those deaths when a boat, SIEV36, was blown up in April 2009. I quote some of the aspects of what that learned coroner found. In paragraph 11 on page 5 of his report, he said:

By way of overview only and having regard to all the evidence I have concluded that the explosion was caused when a passenger or passengers deliberately ignited petrol which had collected in the bilge area below the deck of SIEV 36. Unleaded petrol in a container housed in a hatch near the bow of the boat had been deliberately spilt into the bilge. The ignition of the petrol resulted in almost instantaneous ignition of petrol vapour emanating from the spill.

He goes on to describe the magnitude of a very serious explosion, which blew nine Royal Australian Navy personnel into the water. It is not enough to come here on one of these boats, having paid for the privilege, but when they get here they want to blow the boat up with Australian people on board. The coroner made distinct findings as to the cause of that explosion—and I will deal with that in a little while.

Let us talk about what Navy did and how they responded. On page 38 of the coronial inquest report the coroner says in paragraph 89:

When the explosion occurred, many of the passengers and navy personnel were thrown into the water. Again the video depicts what occurred. Keogh—

a Navy man—

can be seen on the starboard side of the boat trying to direct passengers to leave the boat. He was very brave as were many others that day. He was unable to save one of the passengers who drowned in front of him. Standing Orders required that he remain on the boat and not enter the water unless directed to do so. He tried to help and took hold the seat of the wheel house which he intended to throw to the drowning man but it melted in his hand. Thereafter he remained on the burning vessel until he was extracted, despite the obvious danger of further explosions and him being injured himself.

The coroner goes on to set out more acts of extreme heroism and bravery. In paragraph 91, on page 39, he says:

In the process of the rescue, Corporal Jager was in danger because her life vest did not inflate and she believed she was drowning. Medbury and Boorman, who were crewing the RHIB that was portside of the SIEV at the time of the explosion, rescued her. In the process of doing so, they had great difficulty. She was clearly struggling, they were finding it difficult to get her on board. Shortly before they succeeded, a passenger was hanging on to her and preventing the rescue. Medbury either kicked the RHIB or kicked towards the passenger. Corporal Jager says that the passenger was kicked in the head. However, she conceded it happened in a split second and she could be mistaken. Medbury agreed that he was kicking towards the passenger to stop him from preventing Jager's rescue. I do not need to make any specific findings about this incident. The incident must be seen in the context of what was happening. There had been a violent explosion, people were screaming in the water. Corporal Jager was struggling and have drowned but for prompt action, the passenger concerned was in fact rescued anyway.

The coroner goes on at paragraph 92:

After high alert had been sounded, HMAS Albany returned to the scene. Albany's two RHIBs were launched and assisted with the rescue of ADF and passengers. The rescue was efficient, effective and in my opinion saved lives. There were many heroic acts that morning in the process of saving the passengers and crew of SIEV 36 and also in their treatment thereafter. For example, Corporal Jager, notwithstanding what she had been through, attended to the needs of several injured people with the Medical Officer Darby with seemingly inexhaustible energy and precision. Many passengers were saved because of their efforts. It can be said that but for the combined efforts of the Australian Defence Force, Border Protection Command, Australian Maritime Safety Authority (Rescue Co-ordination Centre), Off Shore Gas Installation Front Puffin, Truscott and medical teams from around Australia, many more lives would have certainly been lost.

The coroner goes on:

I have already commented on the great efforts, professionalism and bravery of ADF members collectively in rescuing survivors from the SIEV 36. In my view, the individual efforts of ADF members Jager, Keogh and Faunt are worthy of specific mention; 1) I have already mentioned Jager in the previous paragraph; after being on the boat for some time during the night, she was blown off the back of the boat into the water by the explosion, she was in a state of shock and her life vest did not inflate, she was close to drowning with other survivors attempting to swim over her in order to be rescued, she was terrified. Yet, despite this trauma, after her rescue with her specialist medical training she attended to the survivors for the next 10 hours …

And the coroner goes on:

2) I have already mentioned the efforts of Keogh in paragraph 89 … 3) Faunt had only been on the SIEV 36 for a short time on the morning of the explosion, he realised the dangers of an explosion, he called "high alert", he attempted to appropriately deal with the developing situation, he was standing on top of the roof of the boat's coach house, the explosion blew him from the roof into the air and into the water, despite the shock and confusion engendered by this trauma, after rescue he remained on duty for several hours supervising the men under his command in relation to the rescue.

That is what this failed policy has delivered to the Royal Australian Navy. It is a disgrace. And they sit over there with their smug looks and think: 'Oh, yes, this is a political game. Our ideology will prevent us from adopting the Howard solution.' Australian naval lives were put at risk wilfully by this negligent and derelict government. That is what has happened here. And I, for one, will not allow it to go without saying that, but for the fact of the professionalism and the dedication of these Navy people who have had to endure this policy fiasco, there would be many, many more deaths.

How do we measure the level of incompetence and callous disregard of this government in the face of a boat in April 2009 being wilfully blown up, with nine naval personnel on it—how was that not enough to convince this crazy, neglectful, incompetent government that their policies had to change? Four years later here we are, dragged, kicking and screaming, by Angus Houston. That is what this has come to. The events of April 2009 should have woken them up, as any normal person would have been woken up, to the fact that this policy of compassion, the removal of the Pacific solution, was going to lead to disaster, to death and end in tears—and it has. But, no, they know better.

This Prime Minister will not do or say anything that acknowledges the successful governance for 11 years by John Howard. That is the problem; that is what sticks in their craw. And don't we know they are paying for it today? They are an absolute laughing stock. Their incompetent governance skills are probably the world's worst in a Western country. Everything they have touched has turned to mud because they do not know what they are doing. They think about what the spin doctors tell them first and foremost, without concentrating on the outcome and the practical application of policy.

So what did they do with all those people who deliberately blew up the boat? The coroner said that most of them lied, so what did they do with them? They gave them visas. They welcomed them into Australia. That is the level of incompetence we have dealt with from this government. It is a measure of their extreme and callous disregard, neglect and political spin-doctoring that they welcomed into this country those criminals who tried to kill nine Australian sailors.

In closing—because I am very annoyed about what we have had to endure for the last four years, as any reasonable, normal person would be—I want to say to the men and women of the patrol boat FEG out of Darwin a huge thank you for the loyal professionalism they have continued to display year after year in dealing with this classic and massive fiasco of policy. Their dedication to duty has been an example to all of us and on this side of the chamber we all want to congratulate them and say thank you for their work. They are the people whose rights we should have been thinking about.