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Transcript of joint press conference: Sydney: 23 September 2013: Operation Sovereign Borders

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The Hon. Scott Morrison MP Minister for Immigration and Border Protection

Operation Sovereign Borders Monday, 23 September 2013

Press Conference, Sydney

Joint Press Conference with Scott Morrison - Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and Lieutenant General Angus Campbell - Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders.

Scott Morrison: Welcome to the initial weekly briefing of Operation Sovereign Borders. I am pleased to be joined by Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders joint agency taskforce established last week on day one of the new government, and I take this opportunity, General, to congratulate you on your promotion.

Operation Sovereign Borders is the government's response to stopping the flow of illegal boat arrivals to Australia that commenced and occurred under the previous government where more than 50 000 people arrived illegally by boat in Australia on more than 800 such vessels, costing Australian taxpayers more than $9 billion and sadly led to more than 1100 deaths at sea.

We'll be doing things differently as a new government. This is a border security operation. This is a new and a genuine resolve based on the Coalition party's longstanding commitment and belief in strong border protection policies. It will be a tougher approach. Our resolve to implement what we have promised the Australian people, to stop the boats, is absolute.

Those seeking to come on boats will not be getting what they have come for. They will be met by a broad chain of measures end to end that are designed to deter, to disrupt, to prevent their entry from Australia and certainly to ensure that they are not settled in Australia.

Operation Sovereign Borders is the new government's action to stop the boats that were started under the previous government. Operation Sovereign Borders is a military-led border security operation supported by the direct involvement of a number of agencies and departments brought together under single operational command and a single ministerial responsibility.

The operation commander is Lieutenant General Angus Campbell supported by Deputy Commander and former Deputy National Security Adviser, Alan McKinnon, and there are three task group leaders. AFP Assistant Commissioner, Steve Lancaster, is leading the disruption and deterrence task group. Border Protection Command Commander, Rear Admiral David Johnston, is leading the group tasked

with detection, interception, and transfer. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection's First Assistant Secretary, Ken Douglas, is leading the return, remove, and resettle task group.

The joint agency taskforce will be headquartered in Canberra at Customs House and the Commander will brief on its establishment following my remarks. The purpose of this briefing is to provide an operational update on the establishment of Operation Sovereign Borders, the work that has already been done and the work that is under way. The government is determined to implement our policies to stop the boats and our focus is on implementation.

This briefing is not about providing shipping news to people smuggler - it's about what the government is doing in this operation to stop those people coming to Australia on those boats and deliver on our mandate achieved at the recent election to implement the policies that will stop the boats. This is an operational briefing of matters that have been cleared for public release. Briefings will not be provided on tactical and operational matters that may compromise current or future operations.

I would now like to run through a few actions to date that have already occurred in terms of the implementation of Operation Sovereign Borders. Obviously, the operation has been commissioned and the key principles involved in the leadership of that operation have been established. We have also established a 48 hour target turnaround for any persons who have arrived illegally by boat in Australia.

Under the previous government, people settled in on Christmas Island. That won't be happening under a Coalition Government and will be moving immediately to ensure we have a 48 hour target turnaround for those who have arrived, subject to operational logistical matters. Secondly, we have taken the decision to expand offshore processing at Manus Island by a further 1230 places and a further 2000 places in Nauru.

We have terminated the plan for a detention centre at Singleton and we have transferred the funds, the $58 million, we're in the process of doing that now through consultation with the Treasurer to have those funds available for offshore processing facilities, as we advised in our policy before the election.

We have engaged in recent days with the governments of both Papua New Guinea and Nauru. In particular, the Foreign Minister and I have had several discussions with the Foreign Minister and Immigration Minister, Rimbink Pato, about our ability to move to a much more rapid air transfer of people who have arrived to Manus Island and that we greatly appreciate the support and the cooperation and the positive approach taken by the government of Papua New Guinea in assisting us with those new measures.

We have also at an operational level been engaging with the government of Nauru and tomorrow I will be meeting with the Justice Minister, David Adeang, in Canberra to further discuss matters in relation to Nauru. And, we also thank obviously the Nauruan Government for their consistent support over a very long time, for their willingness and cooperation to assist Australia in the way that it has and continues to.

We have terminated - I should say we've engaged in the process of restoring temporary protection visas. The reintroduction of temporary protection visas is under way and the policy of providing permanent protection visas to people who have arrived illegally by boat under the last government, that policy has ceased. We have commenced planning and implementation of the regional deterrence framework and other related measures including maritime arrangements.

We have terminated the onshore taxpayer-funded advertising in mainstream media as practised by the previous government on their operations, including that which was undertaken during the caretaker period. And we have established, as I'm sure you're all well aware, a new communications protocol to support Operation Sovereign Borders consistent with operations of this nature and as was flagged by the Coalition before the last election. These new communication protocols are designed to support the operations.

Before the last election, I made it clear that we would be reviewing that policy. That policy has been reviewed with our new operational commanders for Operation Sovereign Borders and we are returning to the practice of the Howard Government when it comes to these matters and we'll be providing the information on operations at these regular weekly briefings, which the Commander will take you through.

In terms of next steps, I've already mentioned the meeting with the Nauruan Justice Minister, David Adeang. I will also be visiting Manus Island later this week. I'll be heading up there over the back half of this week to deal with a series of issues, quite serious issues, and will be working there and seeking to meet with the Governor of Manus Island and other key individuals, as well as specifically visiting the centre and delivering the message about the government's new policies directly to those detained in those facilities. I will be making a further visit intended in the following week, subject to the availability of key personnel, to Nauru.

We will also have to work through the funding issues regarding the ongoing operations of offshore processing in both Nauru and Manus Island. The previous government had not funded operations for offshore processing from 1 January next year. This leaves a fairly significant hole that has to be filled and I'll be working with the Treasurer and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to finalise submissions to ensure the ongoing funding for those very important operations.

The capital funding for the expansion of facilities is drawn from the existing capital allocations, but there is no operational funding for offshore processing beyond 1 January of next year, and we'll be moving to remedy that immediately through the appropriate budget process.

So, with those remarks on an update of the [indistinct], I will now pass it to the Commander to detail the other matters.

Angus Campbell: Thank you, Minister.

Operation Sovereign Borders commenced on Wednesday 18 September. As the minister outlined, the operation is military-led and it is approached as a border security operation, supported and assisted by a wide range of federal government

agencies. I've established my headquarters for the joint agency taskforce at the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service building in Canberra.

The taskforce is comprised of three task groups, previously outlined by the minister. Those groups will work together to ensure a whole-of-government effort to stop people smuggling. I have about 50 staff coming together in that headquarters. Other agencies will be contributing information, intelligence and expertise, as required, to ensure that this is a fully implemented whole-of-government approach.

Having been appointed to this role only last Thursday, I'm now turning my mind to the development of a campaign plan approach to a border security operation and the associated regional deterrent framework. I expect to be able to update and advise the minister soon on these issues.

I'll now provide an update on recent arrivals transferred to the custody of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. This update covers a reporting period from the commencement of Operation Sovereign Borders on Wednesday 18 September to 23 September.

During that reporting period, one suspected illegal entry vessel arrived. This was intercepted east of Christmas Island by a Royal Australian Naval patrol vessel operating under the control of Border Protection Command on Sunday 22 September. It was carrying 31 passengers and two crew. All were transferred to Australian government authorities on Christmas Island late yesterday, Sunday. The majority of those on board will be transferred to a regional resettlement country within 48 hours. The arrival of this vessel is in addition to the arrival of seven vessels carrying 475 passengers and 16 crew intercepted or assisted by Border Protection Command between 8 September and 21 September.

These seven vessels were the subject of media releases issued by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service during the caretaker period associated with the recent federal election.

Currently, there are 798 people on Manus Island and 710 persons on Nauru. We expect to transfer an additional 24 people to Manus and 34 to Nauru late tomorrow.

Since 8 September, two persons have voluntarily returned home from Nauru and an additional two persons have voluntarily returned home to their country of origin from Manus.

I will be providing weekly operational updates and would conclude by saying that this is a complex border security operation, which I'm determined to ensure all the agencies involved are focused on implementing and resolving. Thank you.

Scott Morrison: Questions through me.

Journalist: Was the 48-hour turnaround achieved or going to be achieved?

Scott Morrison: Well, the previous government had some constraints built into the arrangement with Papua New Guinea, and through our discussions with Foreign

Minister and Immigration Minister Pato, we've been able to remove some of those constraints.

If people are fit to get on a boat, they'll be quickly deemed fit to fly and issues relating to health and other matters will be progressed increasingly at the other end. But initial health checks, which enable that person's fitness to fly is the critical assessment that needs to be made.

And the key message is this; you won't be settling in on Christmas Island if you come on a boat. You will find yourself very quickly and rapidly transferred by air to one of the offshore processing centres, if that is the outcome that has presented itself as a result of your voyage.

Journalist: [Indistinct] are you currently hitting that 48 hour turnaround target [indistinct]?

Scott Morrison: The first test of that obviously comes with this vessel that has just arrived, because the decision to move to a 48-hour timeframe was taken late last week after the government was sworn in. So the department has been tasked with that target and it is my expectation and I know the General's that that timeframe will be met and we'll have the opportunity to report on that at future briefings.

Journalist: You said to people on this latest boat that they would be transferred within 48 hours [indistinct]. Who's staying and why are they staying.

Scott Morrison: There are a couple of individuals that for operational reasons I'm not about to telecast what sort of issues might prevent someone from being immediately transferred, but it is our intention that if they're not transferred within 48 hours, they will be transferred and we hope to resolve some of those matters over the course of the next week or so as we meet with both PNG and the Nauruan Governments.

Journalist: Minister, the media briefing [indistinct]; whose idea was it? Whose idea is it?

Scott Morrison: I'll allow the Commander to respond to that.

Angus Campbell: Sure. While I have not, as a norm, and would not offer comment as to advice I provide to government ministers of the day, a range of officials and I have discussed this question and we are very appreciative of the opportunity to provide regular periodic briefings to the media, the reason being that there is an absolute respect for the need for the Australian people to be aware of what is occurring. But, there's also a balance that is struck operationally to ensure the protection of the conduct of current and anticipated activity operationally which might otherwise message to people smugglers how we intend to conduct our business. And so, for that reason, a periodic and appropriate routine to media briefings is something I very much support.

Journalist: So, Minister, it's all the Lieutenant General's idea?

Scott Morrison: As I said before the last election, we would be consulting with the operational commanders, and that's what we've done and the other agencies. This is a serious military-led border security operation where we have Australians who are putting themselves at risk. And it's important that we manage that information sensibly and consistent with the needs of the operation.

This is not the same operation the previous government was running. The previous government ran a shipping news service for people smugglers. That's not what this government is going to do. This government is going to stop the shipping news by ensuring that those boats aren't coming to report. That's our focus. That is our focus and this is the reason why we've gone to this approach.

Australians will know how many boats have arrived and it's our intention that those numbers will fall. And they will know about that and they will know when the boats have stopped because those reports will demonstrate that.

Journalist: But how does that sit with your approach in Opposition when your office quite regularly provided briefings about boat arrivals? You didn't seem that interested in presenting good advertising for the smugglers at that point?

Scott Morrison: The government was not operating an operation such as this. The government was running a welcoming service. They did not have the policies in place as we've put them here now. It is the government that sets the framework as to how information is to be dealt with. The government previously set those rules and the opposition responded to the environment that the government set for themselves.

Journalist: [Indistinct] smugglers [indistinct] at that time, but not now?

Scott Morrison: The government set the framework. They were the ones who released that information, not the opposition. It was the government that did that. And quite surprisingly, the government previously used to go to the detail of not just saying when a boat had arrived, but they would actually give quite precise positioning of the asset that had been deployed, and we're not about to give smugglers a heads-up on these sorts of things, both by that instantaneous timing, which many in this room who follow this issue closely will remember was not that instantaneous on many, many occasions.

The other point I make today is that we will be making sure that the detention statistics and bridging visa statistics will be updated regularly on a monthly basis. The previous government had not updated the detention statistics on their website since May and they hadn't updated the bridging visa statistics since June of last year.

So, we will have a regular process for doing this. People will be able to go to it and see it and these briefings will ensure that that's the case as well.

Journalist: What's the position with the government [indistinct] to children and babies that end up on Christmas Island? Will they be sent on to Manus and Nauru, or what's the position?

Scott Morrison: Well, Nauru is the place where families are processed and transferred, that was the view of the Coalition when we were in opposition, the government didn't share that view and they got themselves into quite a bit of trouble on Manus Island over that. We don't intend to repeat the previous government's mistakes.

Journalist: What operational objective is served by announcing arrivals weekly as opposed to instantaneously?

Angus Campbell: What I seek to avoid in periodic and routine advice to the public through the media is to prevent the potential for messaging to people smugglers with regards to changes, to procedures or our tactical activities that might evolve over time, or, indeed, to provide the broadcast message, if you like, that another vessel, another successful vessel from my people smuggling venture has arrived in Australia, which is quite false, but they are quite comfortable with lying to their potential clientele. And in terms of then managing both the current and the evolving operation, a periodic approach I think is a much stronger way to do business.

Scott Morrison: I note that, I'm sure media will continue to source information and they'll report it. No one's suggesting that shouldn't be the case and I entirely expect that to happen. But as you know, these matters were considered, it is, as many of you know, not uncommon, whether it's in a law enforcement capacity or in an operational capacity, that journalists may be able to cite various sources, but the government, or the agency, at the time will make an official statement on what has occurred. We're saying that will happen every week and that will provide the confirmation of any reports one way or the other at that time.

We aren't going to allow the people smugglers to set the pattern and pace of how the government responds to these matters. The government is taking control of our borders, not the people smugglers. We're not going to hand that control to people smugglers. We will ensure that our arrangements are the ones that we follow deliberately, methodically and carefully. This will be a measured, paced approach to this and it will result in success.

Journalist: Minister, are you hiding the boats, not stopping them?

Scott Morrison: The previous government started the boats and I don't think they are in any position to lecture a new government on the issues of border protection with over 50 000 arrivals on their watch. We're going to stop the boats. That's our commitment to the Australian people. We couldn't have made it more clearly. The briefings that we are providing here will ensure that people know the success of our operations and the progress of implementation.

Journalist: Will they know when it's not successful?

Scott Morrison: Well, they will know how many boats are arriving, that's for sure, and they will get that weekly and they'll get those numbers. But what they won't be getting is the heads-up to people smugglers that the previous government used to run. The Howard Government never operated that shipping news exercise for people smugglers. The current government is not going to operate a shipping news service

for people smugglers. We're going to operate the operation, Operation Sovereign Borders.

Journalist: With the quicker turnaround, are you still expecting health checks and vaccinations, that sort of stuff that occurred previously?

Scott Morrison: Basic health checks are being put in place and the management of those health issues on transfers is being, and has been, addressed in our discussions between our officials and the PNG officials in particular, and those issues are also being addressed with the Nauruan Government.

Journalist: Do you still expect to turn asylum seekers around at sea [indistinct] turn them around and transfer them to Nauru or Manus Island at sea and, if so, when do you expect to have that capacity [indistinct]?

Scott Morrison: Well, as I said at the outset, Paul, in this briefing we're not about to get into operational discussions on things that may impact on current or future operational roles. And so that is just simply not dialogue you can expect at this briefing.

Journalist: But on that point, when it comes to turning the boat around, Lieutenant Campbell, do you make the decision, is that your decision?

Angus Campbell: The conduct of operations is my space to decide, yes.

Journalist: So the moment when it's arrived where you need to turn a boat around, that is your decision?

Angus Campbell: I'm looking at all forms of procedure and tactic and I'm not going to go to any particular form, but, yes, in terms of the orchestration and conduct of activity across Operation Sovereign Border, those are my decisions.

Journalist: Do you expect a phone call before that happens, Minister?

Scott Morrison: Well, there is a clear process of reporting that you would expect, but the chain of command is respected by the government.

Journalist: Then you expect a phone call?

Scott Morrison: These are operational decisions for those who are operationally in control of implementing the government's policies. The government's policies, I think, are very clear and I note that the Chief of Navy the other day made the comment that they are capable and ready to implement government policy, and that it is for those agencies to implement that policy under the operational command of the Lieutenant General as commander of the task force. So that's how it works. That's how it was always going to work. These are decisions that politicians would only be involved in where policy guidance is sought, and that's a matter for operational commanders.

Angus Campbell: Excuse me, could I just add one more point? I just want to emphasise to you the captain of any vessel involved will ultimately be the decision-maker with regard to what is safe to execute. That's always the case.

Journalist: Clearly, that captain's not making that decision entirely by themselves?

Angus Campbell: No, no - you're quite right.

Scott Morrison: There is a chain of command.

Angus Campbell: The point's been made.

Scott Morrison: There is a chain of command and the chain of command is respected.

Journalist: Well I'm trying to ascertain the chain of command.

Scott Morrison: Well it's a fairly straightforward thing, and people who are familiar with the topic understand what the chain of command is and we're happy to give you a separate briefing if you're not familiar with those protocols. Next question.

Journalist: [Indistinct question]

Scott Morrison: Well, again, that goes to operational matters that, whether they affect current or future operational activity, you will not be getting commentary from this podium or that podium, either way, on those matters.

Journalist: So we won't be told if and when [indistinct]?

Scott Morrison: Operational matters that put at risk current or prospective operations will not be the subject of public commentary in these forums.

Journalist: How is that not hiding the process? We're not being told when a boat is [indistinct], surely that is the key…?

Scott Morrison: You would expect me as minister to ensure the safety of our people that are engaged in difficult and sensitive operations, I'm sure you would. And that's what I will do. And the careful management of this information , as is the case with any other serious operations, whether they be of a military or law enforcement nature, you know are subject to those sorts of constraints, and those same constraints will apply in relation to these operations.

Journalist: Will we ever know when a boat's turned around?

Scott Morrison: The operational arrangements - because we're going to get this right, right from the start - because we're all going to be here every week when we have these briefings, and we want to make it crystal clear - operational and tactical issues that relate to current or prospective operations, whether it's the maritime environment, whether it's in the land environment, offshore or anywhere else, will not be the subject of public commentary from these podiums. We will tell you of what

vessels have arrived and have gone into the care of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Those updates will be provided as well as transfers and other key policy decisions and announcements and implementation issues regarding this policy. But, we are not getting into the tactical discussion of things that happen at sea.

Our joint operations with our good friends in Indonesia, and our other partners, are matters that we will deal with directly with them, as with the other governments, whether it's Nauru or PNG or Malaysia or Thailand or Sri Lanka or any of these other countries. So, this is an open briefing process, but there are obvious limitations to what can be discussed in these forums for the protection and safety of the people who are doing our service for our nation in performing these tasks.

Journalist: [Indistinct] incident though, like if [indistinct]?

Scott Morrison: Well, what sort of incident are you referring to?

Journalist: If there's anyone who goes overboard or anything like that, or an accident [indistinct]?

Scott Morrison: In between briefings, the Commander and I have discussed, if there are significant incidents that occur, then obviously a decision will be taken at that time as to what briefing will be provided. Now-

Journalist: -Who decides [indistinct].

Scott Morrison: Let me finish this. So, under the previous government, where there were significant incidents, Minister Clare at that time would often give a very factual briefing of the events. And that is a practice of which we clearly didn't oppose and that was a practice that we found helpful and obviously the helpfulness of that practice will be considered in the decision that will be taken.

Journalist: Who decides [indistinct].

Scott Morrison: You're looking at the minister responsible for Operation Sovereign Borders and you're looking at the commander responsible for directing the activities of Operation Sovereign Borders and those discussions and the decisions will be taken between us.

Journalist: [Indistinct].

Scott Morrison: I've just said that that decision will be taken in consultation between the commander and myself.

Journalist: Could you brief us on a boat being turned back after [indistinct].

Scott Morrison: I'm not getting into those issues one way or the other.

Journalist: [Indistinct] this was a key election promise.

Scott Morrison: What I said to you is that - and I outlined this in my opening comments - that we're in the process of implementing and planning the implementation of the regional deterrence framework measures and other related measures including maritime operations. That's my statement on that today and that's what I'll be saying today.

Journalist: [Indistinct] history of sabotaging engines out at sea et cetera. How concerned are you for the safety of [indistinct] and these boats [indistinct].

Scott Morrison: I am concerned with regard to the safety of our people in any activities that they're undertaking and I would not focus in on any one in particular but rather note that this is challenging and, on occasion, risky work that they do magnificently, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and the Royal Australian Navy, but it is risky. And their wellbeing is of great concern to me.

Journalist: [Indistinct].

Scott Morrison: No, no. I'm simply saying that the conduct of these kinds of operations, all kinds of border protection operations in a large ocean is always challenging. It's hard work and we've got to take care of our people.

Journalist: [Indistinct].

Scott Morrison: True. Well, obviously the offshore processing is my primary focus at the moment and ensuring the stability and this is the commander's focus as well of the operations of offshore processing on Manus Island. There have been some considerable challenges to that and the capacity needs to be expanded significantly and immediately and that's why we've made that announcement of the expansion of that capacity and I'll answer the question for you.

So that is the first task, is to stabilise offshore processing on Manus Island and ensure adequate capacity, not only for those who are processed there but that the staffing accommodation as well, which is a critical element to running the offshore processing capacity. I've got to say though that I'm quite disappointed that despite all the grand statements about what was being achieved there, the capacity is below what my expectations were and that's why we're moving quickly to remedy that. You can imagine my great surprise when I learnt that the government hadn't even bothered to fund offshore processing operations from 1 January and that needs to be addressed.

The issues regarding resettlement will require obviously a lot of salvaging and we'll continue the process of those discussions with the government of Papua New Guinea but my first priority is to ensure we’re building sustainability in offshore processing and that's what the [indistinct] working to.

Journalist: [Indistinct].

Scott Morrison: Well, without sort of going into too much detail on this, I would say that we would expect to have some of that capacity available on Manus within a matter of weeks and then both on Nauru and Manus we will be able to [indistinct] a

range of different sites that are being used to do that. And, as we speak and over the course of the weekend and these past few days, I have instructed the department to put in place a sort of pre-tender process to ensure that we have the best possible proposal and best value for money in terms of how we were dealing with the expansion of capacity particularly on Nauru. That is a decision being taken by the department and I was very keen to ensure that there was a process that ensured that the appropriate tender was selected or multiple tenders for that matter to perform that work.

Journalist: [Indistinct].

Scott Morrison: Of course, Paul. That's why we're moving very, very quickly.

Journalist: Do you have confidence in Mr Stanhope adhering to government policy?

Scott Morrison: Well, you really should address that question to Mr Truss because he reports to Minister Truss. Residents of Christmas Island I'm sure will make their commentary. I've been to Christmas Island many times and I've always enjoyed their company. They're Australians, like the rest of us, and they live in a fairly special part of the country. The administrator is part of the government and I'm sure Mr Stanhope would act in accordance with his responsibilities as a representative of the government on any government policy. But his activity and his statements on these things, they're a matter not for me but they're a matter for Mr Truss.

Journalist: [Indistinct].

Scott Morrison: Well, you know, I've just outlined my response and that is the response and it's up to Minister Truss and he sits on his responsibility not mine. But all officials, as I've noticed, particularly since taking on this role just a few days ago, the level of commitment, professionalism, whether it's from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, whether it's from the Australian Defence Force, whether it's Customs and Border Protection Service officers, who also come specifically under my remit as Minister, I have found a willingness and professionalism to set about the job of getting the implementation in place and putting in place the policies of the government of the day. And, I think that would be the expectation of the Australian public having elected their government so strongly, that the public service, as they are doing in my experience to date, are getting on with that job.

Journalist: Have there been any discussions [indistinct].

Scott Morrison: Sorry. All of our - well, I'd say this, that there'll be many, there'll be much commentary that will happen up in Indonesia. Indonesia is a vibrant and strong democracy. It's a great partner in Australia and a great friend of Australia. Our discussions with the Indonesian Government will occur directly with the Indonesian Government. They won't occur in the media. There will be no megaphone diplomacy from Australia under this government and we will direct, will deal directly with them in both communicating our policies and our intentions and with a no surprises focus and working constructively with them and we look forward to that first visit with the President at a time in the not too distant future. But others may make commentary.

I've noticed that a lot of that commentary is not based on an actual understanding of policies of the government and that's to be expected when there's lot of speculation flying around, and the speculation's been presented as fact and people are responding to it as such. So, now, these briefings we intend to do in a fairly workman-like way and that means keeping to I think a fairly reasonable timeframe.

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URL: Last update: Tuesday, 01 October 2013 at 12:57 AEST