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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30516

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (2:00 PM) —by leave—I wish to make a statement regarding the circumstances surrounding the motor vessel Tampa. I spoke to the Leader of the Opposition regarding this matter about a quarter of an hour ago and, for reasons I am sure he will understand, it was not possible for me to provide him with a written statement in a fast developing situation. I expect that the Leader of the Opposition will be given leave to respond if that is his wish.

I inform the House that, following a series of events that I will outline, the motor vessel Tampa, in defiance of a clear communication from the Australian government, entered Australian territorial waters earlier today and approached Christmas Island. This was in contravention of clear advice from the Australian government to the Norwegian government, and also very clear advice to the master of the motor vessel Tampa, that Australia was refusing the right of entry of the vessel into Australian waters. The Minister for Foreign Affairs spoke last night to the Norwegian foreign minister, and again this morning at around 9.30, and communicated to the Norwegian government in the clearest possible terms that, if Australian territorial waters were entered, appropriate action would be taken to stop and board the ship. The foreign minister pointed out that any entry into Australian territorial waters would be a breach of international law and that Australia would take whatever action was necessary to stop the Tampa from moving into or further into Australian territorial waters.

The government were subsequently informed by the ship's captain that the Tampa would not enter Australian waters if medical assistance for necessitous cases were provided. We indicated then, as we had previously, that we would be in a position to provide medical assistance, either through an Australian helicopter or, if the ship's captain preferred, by permitting the lifeboat of the motor vessel Tampa to pick up medical supplies and assistance from Christmas Island. I point out that the lifeboat is enclosed and is internationally certified. The ship's captain then indicated that he was willing to accept this offer.

Shortly thereafter, completely contradicting this advice, the ship's captain indicated that he would enter Australian territorial waters and approach Christmas Island. The government was left with no alternative but to instruct the Chief of the Australian Defence Force to arrange for Defence personnel to board and secure the vessel. My advice is that units of the Special Air Service under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Gus Gilmore executed this instruction over an hour ago and that the ship is now in the control of the SAS. We have subsequently been advised by the ship's captain, in contradiction of earlier advice given, that the reason he decided to enter Australian territorial waters was that a spokesman for the survivors of the Indonesian vessel had indicated that they would begin jumping overboard if medical assistance was not provided quickly. I table a telefax message from the Australian Search and Rescue Centre, containing the text of the communication from the master of the Norwegian vessel.

I should inform the House that the preliminary assessment carried out by the Australian Defence Force doctor indicates that nobody—and I repeat: nobody—has presented as being in need of urgent medical assistance as would require their removal to the Australian mainland or to Christmas Island. I repeat that that is the result of the preliminary investigation and a further medical assessment continues.

When I was informed of the apprehended violation of Australian territorial waters by the ship, I rang the Norwegian Prime Minister to express our concern about what was occurring, to repeat the advice that had been given by the foreign minister and to remind him that the foreign minister had spoken to his foreign minister. At that time, the order for the SAS units to stop and board the ship had already been given effect to. In my discussion with the Norwegian Prime Minister, he expressed the view that the Norwegian government had no responsibility in the matter, despite the fact that it is a Norwegian flagged vessel, it is a Norwegian captain and it is a Norwegian company. He continued to assert that it was entirely the responsibility of Australia and other countries.

I pointed out in that discussion that our legal advice was that Australia was under no legal obligation to accept responsibility for the survivors of the Indonesian vessel. I also pointed out that the motor vessel Tampa had been en route to an Indonesian port with the survivors and only decided to head towards Australia under duress from the survivors. I think the point about duress, particularly in view of the telefax communication from the captain regarding the circumstances of his decision to violate Australian territorial waters, bears repeating.

I have been informed by the Chief of the Australian Defence Force that the vessel presently lies four to five nautical miles from Christmas Island. The SAS personnel on the vessel have put it to the captain that the appropriate thing would be for the captain to return to international waters. We have indicated all along that we stand ready and that helicopters will be available, I understand, within an hour eastern standard time to take supplies and, if necessary, further personnel to the vessel.

Our proposition to the ship and the ship's company is that the vessel ought to return to international waters. That matter is still under discussion with the company, and there will be further communications to the Norwegian government, but at this stage the company has indicated that it is disinclined to return to international waters, which, of course, creates a very serious situation. I should emphasise that that proposition of ours and our offer of medical help are not in any way conditional on the return of the vessel to international waters. We stand ready to provide that assistance and to maintain the humanitarian lifeline irrespective of the decision that is taken in relation to the return of the vessel to international waters. Through the ADF personnel on the vessel, we are currently having carried out an assessment of supplies, medical stores and the like that may be needed if there is to be an extended stay at sea by the Tampa.

This is a very difficult—in fact, for Australia, I think, unprecedented—situation. Nobody is lacking in compassion for genuine refugees. Nobody pretends for a moment that the circumstances from which many people flee are not very distressing. But, equally, it has to be said that, in the last 20 years, no country has been more generous to refugees than Australia. After the Indochinese events of the 1970s, this country took, on a per capita basis, more Indochinese refugees than any country on earth. We have continued to be a warm, generous recipient of refugees, but we have become increasingly concerned about the increasing flow of people into this country. Every nation has the right to effectively control its borders and to decide who comes here and under what circumstances, and Australia has no intention of surrendering or compromising that right. We have taken this action in furtherance of that view. It remains our very strong determination not to allow this vessel or its occupants, save and excepting humanitarian circumstances clearly demonstrated, to land in Australia, and we will take whatever action is needed—within the law, of course—to prevent that occurring.

I want to add two other things. I want to record my gratitude to the men of the Australian Defence Force who are involved in this operation, particularly their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Gus Gilmore. It is always important on occasions like this to remember that the men and women of our Defence Force are exposed to potential danger. The other point I seek to make and to repeat—and I condition it by saying that it is only preliminary advice at this time—is that the preliminary medical assessment is that nobody on the vessel has presented as being in need of urgent medical evacuation. I think that is a very important element in the debate that has gone on. I also repeat that we stand ready to continue to supply on a humanitarian basis medical assistance and medical supplies. It is entirely consistent with that offer that the vessel return to international waters where it belongs and it is entirely consistent with our stance regarding the non-entry of the vessel into Australia that that ought to take place. We will continue to discuss the matter with the Norwegian government and the government of Indonesia.

I have said on a number of occasions, and I repeat it here, that in the medium to longer term a solution to this problem lies in preventing the egress from Indonesia of so many of the boat people. That is the core of the problem. That will require a cooperative effort between Australia and Indonesia. We stand ready to be involved in that cooperative effort, and we have communicated that willingness to the government of Indonesia. We understand the strains on the Indonesian economy and we understand the limited resources available to the government of that country. We are prepared to shoulder the financial burden in relation to the implementation of a satisfactory policy that will block the egress of people from Indonesia. The problem does lie in the ease of entry of many people from Middle Eastern and other countries to neighbouring countries of Indonesia and their relative ease of transfer to Indonesia and then through Indonesia onto boats and down to Australia.

Something has to be done to stop that flow of humanity. Something has to be done internationally to ensure that people who seek to be treated as refugees are commonly, fairly and equitably assessed, and that is not happening now. We stand ready to shoulder our burden in relation to refugees—we always have and we always will—but it must occur in a fair and proper fashion, and plainly what is happening with people-smuggling is that the principle of fairness is being grossly violated. We hope that, by the action we have taken in relation to the Tampa, we have not only upheld the principles of international law and acted in Australia's national interests but also sent a message of our concern to the rest of the world, the international community, regarding the situation that has developed. We are at present engaged in communications with the government of Indonesia regarding a medium to longer term resolution of the issue. But I repeat: the medium to longer term resolution does lie very much in that particular area.

In relation to the present situation, our position is that the Tampa should not be able to dock or discharge the people on board at Christmas Island or anywhere else in Australia and, consistent with our humanitarian obligations, which we stand ready to discharge, we will continue resolutely to maintain that position.