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Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Page: 21

Senator JOHNSTON (2:53 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Home Affairs, Senator Wong. I refer to the fact that only around 320 naval personnel will be on active duty protecting Australia’s borders for two months over the Christmas period and that only half of the patrol boats that defend our shores will be deployed. I ask the minister how many of the eight Bay class Customs vessels will be on active duty protecting our borders over that period?

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) —I thank Senator Johnston for the question. As the Senator is aware, the government is committed to strong border security arrangements and is determined to deal effectively and appropriately with the perpetrators of people smuggling and similar such crimes that put lives at risk. It is the case, I understand, that Labor will continue to ensure extensive patrolling of our borders—

Opposition senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Wong, resume your seat. There are too many interjections on my left. Some people have been repeatedly interjecting, and I think it is disorderly.

Senator WONG —My advice is that the stand-down over Christmas that Senator Johnston refers to will not impact operations and that there will not be any diminution of the border security arrangements. Also, I want to emphasise that, since the Rudd government was elected, there has been no reduction in the number of Royal Australian Navy patrol boats and no change in the number of Australian Customs vessels assigned to Border Protection Command. I am also advised that patrols of Australian waters will continue throughout the Christmas-New Year period. There has been no reduction in Border Protection Command’s operational capability, and the RAN and Customs vessels under the control of Border Protection Command will continue their important border protection duties. There is no diminution of activity. I understand, Senator Johnston, that this is consistent with the answers that have been previously given to the opposition on this issue.

Senator JOHNSTON —With respect, that answer is inconsistent with Senator Faulkner’s answer when he said that half of the patrol boats would be withdrawn. But we will bat on. Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given that the Oceanic Viking has been moored in Hobart for the last several weeks, will the government be deploying it to our northern waters to plug the massive maritime gaps left in our border as a result of the government’s decision to stand down most of our Navy for two months of Christmas holidays?

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) —With respect—through you, Mr President—I think Senator Johnston knows from my first answer that there is no gap. The premise of his question is incorrect.

Senator JOHNSTON —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question.

Opposition senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Johnston, resume your seat. It is your own side that are interjecting on you.

Senator JOHNSTON —Given the lack of answers, it is for good reason, I suspect.

The PRESIDENT —No, that does not justify their disorderly behaviour.

Senator JOHNSTON —Can the minister assure the Senate that the reason last Thursday’s illegal boat eluded detection and made it as far south as Shark Bay had nothing to do with the fact that the government currently has a shortfall in aerial daytime surveillance hours? Can the minister explain why the government is leaving our maritime borders exposed by giving the Navy two months Christmas holidays at the very time there has been a surge in people smugglers bringing illegal immigrants to Australia?

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) —In relation to the last part of his question, Senator Johnston continues to press a proposition which I think I have already responded to. My advice is that the stand-down over Christmas will not impact on operations. I reiterate that the Rudd government is committed to strong border security and will maintain the extensive patrolling of our borders undertaken by Border Protection Command.