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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30518


Mr BEAZLEY (Leader of the Opposition) (2:14 PM) —by leave—I join the Prime Minister in the first instance in expressing gratitude to the members of the Australian armed services engaged in this very difficult situation both at sea at the moment and also on land. This is a moving situation, and one which was difficult and has now become extraordinarily difficult. In these circumstances, this country and this parliament do not need a carping opposition; what they actually need is an opposition that understands the difficult circumstance in which the government finds itself, and to the very best of my ability I will ensure that that situation prevails.

When the government first announced its proposals in relation to the fate of the MV Tampa, it did so on the basis of international law, not a change in policy. As far as we can see, there has been no change in government policy on the way in which refugees, or potential refugees, coming illegally to this country ought to be treated. The government was acting under international legal obligations that are presented by the law in relation to rescue at sea, which oblige those countries in whose zones people are rescued at sea to make landfall in those countries. It has been quite clear from the outset that, in this particular case, it occurred in the Indonesian zone, and therefore landfall should take place in Indonesia. That is indeed what should have happened and what should happen, regardless of whatever duress or pressures are placed on the captain of the vessel, his crew, the Norwegian government or the shipping line. That is the state of international law as far as the situation is concerned.

Noting that there has been no change in policy in that regard, and because we believe more generally that policies in the area of immigration, which are quite fraught in debate in this country, are best settled on a bipartisan basis, that is the view that we intend to pursue. We understand completely now that a difficult legal environment has been created, even more difficult than it was prior to the decision by the captain to enter Australian territorial waters. It will be a very hard situation for the government to handle, and I suspect the Norwegian government, the owners of the vessel and the master of the vessel himself are very well aware of that fact and that that may well determine the way in which they choose to handle it over the course of the next few days. There is law of course in relation to our navigation acts associated with breaches of the sort that is being engaged in by the captain of the vessel. The government has requested the captain of the vessel to leave our territorial waters and has indicated to him that it will provide every assistance to him in that regard. As the government does that, given all the things that the government has said to this point, I hope and trust that it will, before that event occurs—should it occur—have made absolutely certain that the preliminary medical check will be completed in a full way to determine that all those on board the vessel are in a fit medical condition to continue on course, and of course there would have to be a provisioning of the ship in a way that ensured that that occurred.

The Prime Minister in his remarks mentioned the situation with Indonesia. There is no doubt that the difficulties we currently experience with the illegal entry of people who may be refugees into this country via sea, via these boats, are products of a change in relations between Australia and Indonesia. There are other factors as well but, as the Prime Minister himself acknowledges, that is an important factor. Over the last 10 years something like 13,000 people have come into Australia this way: 2,000 up until about 1996 and 11,000 since then. Quite clearly, there is a job of work to be done in terms of our relationship with Indonesia to in some way check or halt this process. The Prime Minister had apparently a good meeting with the President of Indonesia on this matter a few weeks ago. In some ways this is a test of the preparedness on the part of both parties to take that issue further forward, and we may ask a question or two about that during question time.

However, this is, as I said, a situation which is very unclear at the moment. It is a situation in which there is a deal of serious concern on the part of this government, and so there should be. We are not dealing here with a national catastrophe; what we are dealing with here is a serious problem. Serious problems require cool heads and good hearts in pursuing the solution to those problems. I am sure that the Australian people want both a clear and cool-headed government and a good-hearted government. The way in which this issue should be resolved should reflect both those aspects of what we admire in the Australian character: clear thinking and decent and honourable thinking. As I said at the outset, it is not our intention to, nor should we, put ourselves in a position where anything we say here will in any way, shape or form influence the processes on the high seas. People should act lawfully. The Australian government has acted lawfully. The captain of the ship should act lawfully. We urge him to continue to do so; should he not, then that is a substantial problem for the government, and the government is seeking as best it can to resolve it.