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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22708

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON (2:23 PM) —My question is to the Attorney-General. Is the Attorney-General aware of statements suggesting that the crew of the recent boat carrying unauthorised arrivals should have been retained in Australia? Would the Attorney-General advise the House of the impact of that line of action and of the government's record in prosecuting boat crews?

Mr RUDDOCK (Attorney-General) —I thank the member for Blair for his question. I certainly am aware of the comments from some quarters that we should have kept the crew here in Australia to prosecute them. I think it is important to recognise that, when that is possible and when it is safe in terms of the people who may be on the vessels, those prosecutions do occur and have occurred very frequently. In fact it was this government that increased the penalties for organisers of illegal entry groups of five or more. We doubled the maximum penalty to 20 years in jail, we provided a minimum sentence of five years in jail and we also introduced a fine of up to $220,000. In recent years many boat crews have been convicted and sentenced to very lengthy terms in jail. Twenty-seven people are currently serving sentences, including two who were jailed in 2001 for eight years and others who are serving terms ranging from 2½ to seven years. Several alleged organisers have also been extradited to Australia and are now subject to arrest warrants in relation to their activities. Dozens of boats have been seized and destroyed.

This has been an important signal to people smugglers, but the strongest signal sent to people smugglers occurred in 2001 when four boats were returned to Indonesia. That was the strongest signal that has been sent. Those four boats carried hundreds of potential unauthorised arrivals back, and at least one was organised by one of the largest people smugglers in the business. When he failed, it sent shock waves through the smugglers' ranks, and their customers came to them and told them, `If you can't deliver us to Australia, we're no longer intending to pay you.' That is the advice that they were given and, of course, people have not been prepared to part with money to people smugglers to arrange voyages in expectation that their vessels would be interdicted and they would not reach their destination. That is the reason that this has been the strongest signal sent yet. It is one of the reasons that we have had only two boats approaching our shores in the last two years.

It is necessary to contrast that with what the opposition is now saying. The opposition is now saying, `Keep the crew here.' It is saying that we should either forsake the opportunity of returning the people who were being trafficked or, alternatively, put them on a vessel without a crew, where their lives would be at risk. You have only got two courses open to you, but that is what you are saying. We have sent a very strong signal to people smugglers and their customers that they will not succeed. We know, particularly after what we saw in the Senate yesterday, that the Labor Party wants to knock right off the table the very important legs of our policy which has succeeded. That is what it wants to do. Labor's message is that it will unwind border protection and will send to smugglers the signal, `Get back into business.' Let me say that we are not soft on border protection, and we will determine in each case the best way of ensuring that smugglers do not think that they are achieving their ends.