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Wednesday, 6 December 2006
Page: 82

Mr ENTSCH (3:07 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Defence. Would the minister inform the House about what the government is doing to help our Navy protect our borders against illegal smuggling and fishing? Are there any alternative approaches?

Dr NELSON (Minister for Defence) —I thank the member for Leichhardt for his question and for a very strong commitment to border protection and, in particular, the basing of Armidale class patrol boats at HMAS Cairns. There is arguably no more important responsibility for any government than the protection of a nation’s borders and the sovereignty of its waters and its economic exclusion zone. In the recent budget this year, the government announced that an additional $388 million would be committed to border protection to detect and prevent illegal foreign fishing and unlawful arrivals and also to support the protection of our gas and oil platforms.

In support of our Customs aircraft, our Customs vessels and fishing and management authority activities, the Royal Australian Navy is providing a single fast frigate for the cause. We currently have five Armidale class patrol boats, which will rise to seven. The government has put two more minehunters into border protection. We have an RAAF Orion surveillance aircraft supporting these operations. Also, the government has consolidated the management of this process in a single border protection command.

There is no more important task that is done by the Royal Australian Navy than the protection of Australia’s borders. In April this year, I had the privilege of spending a day and a night on HMAS Bathurst, up at the Top End. Apart from admiring the courage and dedication of our Navy personnel, it became clear that our people are taking increasing risks in protecting our borders. The foreign fishing vessels that are coming to our country are increasingly sophisticated. They are engaging in activities which are very dangerous to our personnel and indeed to our patrol boats, including using very large sharpened poles, the throwing of missiles and a variety of things which endanger our people. On one occasion late last year, on a boarding party from HMAS Geelong attempting to board one of these vessels that was ignoring orders from one of our patrol boats, one of our people was left hanging onto the stern of this vessel as it sought to escape.

I asked the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Navy in May this year to review the rules of engagement under which the escalating measures that can be taken by our Navy could be strengthened somewhat. Yesterday, I approved new rules of engagement which, in addition to what our Navy can currently do, will include the use of capsicum spray. They will also include the use of tear gas, distraction explosives and firing. They will also include long-range acoustic explosives, and, under certain circumstances, our patrol boats will be allowed to fire directly to disable a vessel which is ignoring orders, which is seeking to escape apprehension and which indeed is threatening our Navy and our people. It is extremely important that anybody who comes to this country seeking to steal our fish and breach our sovereignty knows that they will be met with a very strong, disciplined Royal Australian Navy.

I am asked about alternative policies. The Labor Party has had four different policies on this in five years—the so-called coastguard. When the parliamentary committee considered in 2001 the concept of a coastguard, the Royal Australian Navy said this: ‘The creation of a coastguard would have a detrimental effect on Navy training and experience.’ I might also add that the CFMEU journal, Common Cause, in November that year asserted that the coastguard would be manned by members of the Maritime Union.

Australians have a very clear choice. They have very strong border protection, centrally coordinated, well resourced and supported by the Royal Australian Navy, where people coming to steal our fish and breach our sovereignty are met by a Royal Australian Navy ship. Alternatively, they can be met by a unionised coastguard which splinters and undermines the training of Navy personnel.

Opposition members interjecting—

The SPEAKER —Members are holding up their question time. I call the Leader of the Opposition.