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Wednesday, 22 August 2001
Page: 29912

Mr CHARLES (9:39 AM) — On behalf of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, I present the committee's report, incorporating a dissenting report, entitled Report 384: Review of Coastwatch.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Mr CHARLES —by leave—This report arose from the committee's statutory obligation to review reports of the Auditor-General—in this case, Audit Report No. 38 of 1999-2000. The headlines for the committee's report are these:

· the present Coastwatch organisation is working well;

· the challenges faced by Coastwatch are wide ranging and demanding, but they are being met effectively; and

· there is no need for an Australian coastguard.

Coastwatch is working well

During the inquiry the committee visited Coastwatch's National Surveillance Centre and inspected facilities across Northern Australia. During this time the committee participated in two offshore patrols and saw at first hand how Coastwatch conducts patrols, detects and investigates surface contacts, and coordinates the interception of vessels carrying suspected illegal immigrants.

The committee saw a well integrated organisation, effectively using the resources at its disposal, and staffed by personnel dedicated to protecting Australia's borders. However, the committee considers that Coastwatch's role could be better defined and has recommended that there be a clear statement from the government, in the form of a publicly released charter, setting out what the government regards as its expectations for Coastwatch. Such a charter would serve to inform the public of Coastwatch's intended role.

We are all aware of the recent upsurge of boat people arriving off the north-west of Australia and at Christmas Island. It is important to state what Coastwatch's role is in this regard. Its role is to detect and coordinate the interception of those boat people and, if they choose to enter Australia's territorial waters—that is, cross the 12-mile line—bring them safely to land. Its role is not, as some would have us believe, stopping those people, intercepting them, refuelling their boats, and telling them to go away! Coastwatch also plays an essential role in detecting illegal activities such as illegal fishing and is integral to antidrug operations, undertaking surveillance on behalf of its clients, Customs and the Australian Federal Police.

The committee feels that Coastwatch's role is poorly understood by the public and has recommended that there should be a comprehensive campaign to inform the public of Coastwatch's role in protecting Australia's borders. The committee has looked at Coastwatch's performance measures and agrees with the Auditor-General that these could be improved. The committee has developed this further and the report contains performance measures which could be used as a basis for a balanced scorecard by which Coastwatch's performance could be measured.

The committee is also critical of the information about Coastwatch provided to parliament by Customs at budget time, for additional estimates and in the Customs annual report. The output price information provided is unclear and appears in part to result from a misalignment of the Customs output structure with its program structure. While such a mismatch may improve flexibility for Customs, a consequence is poor pre- and post-expenditure accountability to parliament.

There has been speculation that Coastwatch, as a program within Customs, may be too close to Customs, to the detriment of services provided to other Coastwatch clients. The evidence provided by Coastwatch's clients, however, has not supported this view. From this and other evidence, the committee concludes that the relationship between Coastwatch and its clients is sound. This is no doubt assisted by the recent practice of seconding a serving uniformed Australian Defence Force officer to be the Director General of Coastwatch. The committee has recommended that this practice continue.

The challenges faced by Coastwatch are being met effectively

The challenges faced by Coastwatch are wide ranging and demanding. The committee has discussed the challenges of the unauthorised arrival of suspected illegal immigrants, illegal fishing, the movement of people across Torres Strait, and the issue of unauthorised air movements in Northern Australia.

In discussing the arrival of boat people, the committee draws a distinction between those arriving to the north and north-west who arrive openly and those who have attempted to enter covertly along the east coast. The committee believes that Coastwatch is performing well in detecting and coordinating the interception of illegal entry vessels in northern and north-western waters. Simply providing additional resources to Coastwatch or creating a coastguard will not stem the tide. The solution is to prevent people from illegally setting out for Australia. To this end, the committee is satisfied that the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs is making every effort to enter into agreements with Australia's neighbours to thwart the people smugglers.

Regarding illegal fishing, the committee considers that in northern and north-western waters Coastwatch's performance is limited by its ability to intercept the vessels it has detected. In contrast, in the Southern Ocean, the limiting factor is one of actually detecting the illegal fishers. The committee has recommended that:

· there should be a review of options for increasing Australia's ability to respond to illegal fishing in northern waters, with consideration of increasing response capability if warranted; and

· Defence should investigate the cost of acquiring and outfitting a Southern Ocean patrol vessel, and investigate the feasibility of mounting joint patrols of the Southern Ocean with other countries with an interest in the region.

In his audit the Auditor General raised the issue of unauthorised air movements, UAMs. The committee believes that UAMs do not currently pose a threat; nevertheless, Australia must plan to meet this threat should it eventuate. The committee's recommendations include:

· the continued analysis of potential threats and the development of response strategies;

· there should be contingency plans for siting sensors in the Torres Strait and Cape York to meet any identified threat;

· links and protocols should be developed with Australia's northern neighbours to enable investigation of suspicious aircraft leaving Australian airspace; and

· a contingency plan should be prepared for recommending to Government the mandatory use of transponders on non-commercial aircraft if there is a demonstrated problem of unauthorised air movements.

A concern of the Auditor-General was that it was unclear which agency should take primary responsibility for the UAM issue. The committee has reviewed the matter and concludes it is Customs which should be responsible. However, because UAMs potentially pose a threat of national significance, Defence should be intimately involved in the contingency planning recommended by the committee. Allowing Customs to assume responsibility and Defence to respond to UAM incursions may require amendments to legislation.

There is no need for an Australian coastguard

There is no need for an Australian coastguard. The committee has received evidence proposing several models for a new coastwatch organisation. The models range from: merging Coastwatch with Australian Search and Rescue; Defence to assume the coastwatch role; to the creation of a separate paramilitary coastguard.

The committee has taken considerable evidence on this issue and has analysed the issues by asking:

· does the proposal provide for better use of scarce resources; and

· will the proposal result in improved performance?

The committee included the current Coastwatch in its consideration—to see how it matches up against these criteria.

There appears little overlap between AusSAR and Coastwatch. As it happens, Coastwatch aircraft fly very few hours on behalf of AusSAR because their operations are largely in different areas. It is highly unlikely that savings could be achieved by combining their flying operations or even their operational centres. This is because a single centre would be unable to simultaneously undertake a search and rescue operation and a surveillance and tactical response operation. It could be argued that a combined operation would have better access to sources of information such as ship movements. But this might come at the cost of poorer information from other sources such as Customs and classified information from Defence.

There have been arguments that Defence should take over Coastwatch. The report draws attention to fundamental differences between a defence role and a policing role such as Coastwatch. One such difference is that Defence officers are trained to fight and destroy Australia's enemies, whereas a policing role involves the minimum use of force. Although Defence could use the marine assets as a valuable training ground for the Navy, there is a risk, if Defence took over Coastwatch, of Defence becoming distracted from its prime objective of being prepared to defend Australia in times of conflict.

In analysing the call for a paramilitary coastguard it is tempting to base an argument solely on the comparative costs of the US Coastguard. The committee has not done this. Creating a coastguard would lead to duplication of marine assets. If the RAN patrol boats and Customs vessels were moved to form the nucleus of a coastguard, the Navy would still need patrol boats, and Customs would still need a maritime arm. Customs told the committee that 30 per cent of the operational time of its eight Bay Class vessels would not be spent on Coastwatch operations. Putting the Bay Class vessels into a coastguard would mean that Customs would need at least two new vessels. As well, there would be competition for personnel. Despite the results of the new Defence Force recruitment drive, a coastguard is likely to deplete the Defence Force and the coastguard itself may be understaffed.

And would the new organisation perform better? Well, it might not have the good access to Defence intelligence Coastwatch presently has, and enjoy the good relations with, and intelligence from, Customs and Immigration. To quote from evidence provided from an AFP witness about the UK experience:

... from a law enforcement perspective they would give their right arm to have arrangements similar to those which exist in Australia because [in the UK] there is competition for intelligence and for investigative supremacy ... that is absolutely counterproductive.

But we must ask, `Does the current Coastwatch stack up against the criteria the committee has used?' Coastwatch is a coordinating agency. There is no duplication of assets because Coastwatch does not own them. Through its memoranda of understanding it has ready access to the resources it needs. Because the assets used by Coastwatch belong to others, the risks associated with those assets are borne by others—risks such as maintenance, repair and replacement. And when those assets, such as Customs vessels or RAN patrol boats, are not used by Coastwatch, they can be deployed elsewhere.

A major advantage of contracting-in the assets Coastwatch needs is that if circumstances change, if the suite of platforms and sensors have to be changed to meet a new threat, Coastwatch can renegotiate its relationship with its asset providers. Coastwatch will not be saddled with outmoded equipment, but will instead be a body able to quickly adapt to new threats and to take advantage of new and developing technology.

The committee is of the view that the current Coastwatch is in effect an `outsourced coastguard'. The core business of coordination has been retained and the provision of services is provided by other entities both private and public sector. Australia has been able to achieve this position without the cost and pain of creating then dismantling a large and cumbersome coastguard.

In conclusion, I would like to express the committee's appreciation to those people who contributed to the inquiry by preparing submissions and giving evidence at public hearings. I wish to also thank the members of the Sectional Committee for their time and dedication in conducting this inquiry. I also thank the secretariat staff who were involved: the secretary to the committee, Dr Margot Kerley; inquiry secretary, Dr John Carter; research officer, Ms Rebecca Perkin; and administrative officer, Ms Maria Pappas. I commend the report to the House.