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Thursday, 30 August 2001
Page: 30682

Mr RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Minister for Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) (3:46 PM) —I thank the Leader of the Opposition for the offer of cooperation in relation to legislation that is presently before this parliament because I would make the point that the legislation contains very important provisions designed to deal with particular problems that we do face now. I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that these are issues which require both domestic and international responses.

I notice that the matter of public importance that we are discussing today is the allegation of:

The failure of the Government to put in place a comprehensive solution to the situation of the people on board the MV Tampa.

I listened very carefully to the speech from the Leader of the Opposition because I wanted to see outlined a comprehensive solution to the situation that we face; I wanted to hear if he could outline for me an approach that a thoughtful, constructive opposition would be taking on this issue were they in office. And I did not hear it. That is, quite frankly, a significant disappointment to me.

I will, however, take the opportunity, in replying to the matter of public importance on behalf of the government, to outline the reasons for the legislation that was introduced last night. I made the point today on radio that it is a long time since I have been in the practice of law, I might say—almost 28 years—but I well remember the advice that was given to me by a very revered and highly regarded Sydney law practitioner who was experienced in appearing before the Privy Council in a number of matters, the litigation having been of such a substantial character in relation to forming the framework of the common law of this nation. His advice was that, in acting in matters where one had a very firm view about what the law might be, if there was a further step that you could take to be of more abundant precaution, you would always take it.

There is no doubt that the advice that has been given to the government and that the opposition has accepted is correct. But, in areas which have been highly litigious, in which there has been an element, I might say, of behaviour on the part of some which in other circumstances—except that it involves, I suppose, nation states—I would question the bona fides, why would you not make sure? We were told that there were 10 people unconscious on the vessel MV Tampa and that a number of other serious conditions needed to be addressed and that that constituted two very important signals constituting an emergency. Later, there was a mayday signal sent. These constituted the reasons for the vessel disobeying the instruction to remain outside of our territorial waters. Such a short time after, with competent medical advice available, a very small number of medical conditions that certainly did not constitute any emergency were identified by those personnel. It was quite clear.

I think I still have the statement available that the Prime Minister tabled yesterday, the telex message which showed that the vessel, when it was coming into our territorial waters, latterly changed its view. The telex said:

The spokesperson of the survivors, Mohamed Wali, relayed to me the intention of the survivors to begin jumping overboard if no sure medical assistance was rendered by a particular hour. This in my opinion was a situation getting out of hand.

It seems to me that that was a situation in which you knew that a particular course had been developed. I do not know whether the Norwegian government was complicit in it or not, but certainly the captain was determined to bring the vessel into our territorial waters. In that context, it certainly constituted, in the words of my master solicitor, a situation in which more abundant precaution was required.

The unauthorised arrival of a vessel in our territorial sea must be dealt with in a certain and expeditious manner, and such action can be thwarted if there is any uncertainty concerning the basis for action or if a capacity exists for lengthy legal proceedings challenging those actions. It was therefore out of an abundance of caution that the government wanted to put beyond doubt the ability to exercise the powers in question and to avoid possible legal actions which would put the ability to exercise those powers in doubt.

The opposition knows that the area in relation to the unlawful movement of people has been fraught with litigation. I am the most litigious minister of the Commonwealth, with over 2,000 cases currently before the courts. Why would you not want to put in doubt the possibility of legal actions that would prevent the exercise of these powers? It is not just a question of putting it beyond doubt in terms of its legality; it is a question of putting it beyond doubt in terms of the possibility to argue that there may be a case for doubt. You know in this area that the risk that you run is that somebody will rush off to the court, and there have already been reports in the media of threats of such legal action which could undermine our ability to deal with this current situation effectively. The government wanted to ensure that it could act decisively and without interference in the interests of protecting our territory.

The Leader of the Opposition played these matters down, but we on this side happen to think that the ability to manage our borders—the territorial integrity of Australia— is fundamental. This bill was a reasonable response to the difficult position in which we had been placed. It is the act of a reasonable and responsible government going about getting the job done, and that task has been thwarted by the opposition's efforts last night.

Was the bill consistent with our international obligations? It surely was. The government is confident that any actions taken pursuant to authority granted by the bill are consistent with those obligations; we have taken advice on that matter. Obviously, there will be circumstances in which vessels enter our territorial sea for unlawful purposes, and in such situations the law of the sea enables us to deal with such unauthorised entry. But the bill is designed to put these matters beyond doubt as a matter of domestic law. We are acutely aware of our need to meet our humanitarian obligations and, quite frankly, I am surprised that the Leader of the Opposition would suggest otherwise, knowing the procedures that are undertaken by government in dealing with these matters—and the procedures taken by government in dealing with this matter. Most of the decisions have been taken by cabinet or, if not the cabinet, the National Security Committee of cabinet. They are not matters on which people receive orders that are not thought through at the highest level. They are not matters on which ministers can be accused of a lack of goodwill in relation to these questions and the way in which they are addressed. They are far too important to be dealt with in that way. But in any event, if ministers were to deal with them in any way that was capricious or that could be brought into question, they are matters in respect of which they would ultimately be held accountable by the Australian community.

As I have said, the government is acutely aware of the need to meet humanitarian obligations. Why would we put so much effort into ensuring that there are supplies, that the issue of people's safety is dealt with and, as I announced today, that portaloos are provided? There have been no offers from those who own the ship to bring humanitarian assistance to bear, and yet they use agents around the world, they ply their trade around the world and gain commercial advantage from that. One could be forgiven for thinking that the matter that is driving those who want to see a resolution of these issues by forcing these survivors on Australia in these circumstances has more to do with commercial profit and getting the vessel back on the line than it has to do with the circumstances of the individuals involved.

I make the point that obviously vessels will not be sent back to the high seas in circumstances where that would endanger people's lives. Any suggestion that we would do so flies in the face of our record, not only in the case of the Tampa, but our record generally. Australia has been proud of its humanitarian record, and to bring it into question in this way says more about those who raise these questions in that form than it says about us.

In relation to this bill, it was also important to deal with matters about claims of refugee status and to ensure that, if people were taken ashore for humanitarian reasons where claims of that sort may be made, they would be able to be returned and there would be a bar to claims. Bars are in the legislation that was introduced by you when you were in office, for a variety of reasons.

Mr Leo McLeay —Now we're getting down to it.

Mr RUDDOCK —It would ensure that those people involved could be returned, but there would be a ministerial discretion to deal with any exceptional circumstances. I notice that the Chief Opposition Whip is challenging me on these matters. It appears to me that what he is saying on behalf of the opposition is that it is more important that these survivors are given an opportunity to make claims in Australia with the greater prospect of success—

Mr Leo McLeay —That's not true at all.

Mr RUDDOCK —That is what you are saying.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)— Order! The minister will address his remarks through the chair and will ignore the Chief Opposition Whip.

Mr RUDDOCK —The fact of the matter is that when this vessel took people on board—let me repeat what has been said before—at the request of the Indonesian search and rescue authorities, relayed by Australian authorities, with permission given by the Indonesian authorities, to take the vessel, the situation changed only because the survivors put duress on the captain, according to his reports of what has happened. I listened very carefully today to see whether an alternative solution was offered by the opposition in relation to the way in which this issue should be addressed, and I failed to hear it. What I heard from the opposition and the opposition leader was exactly what he said he did not want to introduce into the handling of this issue; quite frankly, that was a carping opposition. It diminishes those who have taken that approach. Let me assure the House that the government are giving every attention to this issue, as you would expect, and that our approach is comprehensive, as I outlined today, to deal not only with this issue but also with the wider range of issues. The government are ensuring that these questions involve other governments and other international agencies with a view to achieving a humane and appropriate outcome. But it will not be an outcome which leads to those people who have put others under duress achieving what they want. It will be an outcome which protects Australia's sovereignty and, in relation to dealing with boats generally, says that there will be an approach taken by this government to ensure that the insidious trade of smuggling in people is brought to an end. (Time expired)