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Transcript of news conference : Parliament House, Canberra: 27 November 2003: ASIO Bill, boat investigation.

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27 November 2003


re: Asio Bill, boat investigation


ATTORNEY: As you know this morning I introduced a Bill to amend the ASIO Act and at the moment I’m involved in some discussions with the Labor Party in relation to briefing them on its terms and they want to have a party room discussion on it before they decide their approach. We regard the Bill as a very urgent Bill, we would want to see it passed during this session and I hope that in the briefings that do occur, the Labor party will be satisfied that there is an urgent need for the passage of these amendments.

I understand another Senator has moved that the Bill along with another Bill dealing with terrorist organisations be referred to a Senate Committee, with reporting dates in the first half of next year. The passage of such a referral I think would be an unfortunate development in view of the urgency surrounding both of these measures and I hope that the discussions that I can have with the Opposition, will yield support for the measures. Those discussions are ongoing at this time.

REPORTER: What are the sticking points? Labor seemed quite relaxed about it last week.

ATTORNEY: I didn’t say there were any sticking points. I said I was arranging for them to have a briefing and that they need to put it through their Committee procedures. I don’t make any assumptions about what might or might not happen in the Labor Party. I hope in view of the urgency of implementing, the need to implement these measures, that that support will be forthcoming and I’m not suggesting that it’s otherwise than supportive. I’m not suggesting that.

REPORTER: What about commitments onwhen they will actually get back to you with their views?

ATTORNEY: No, I’ve said they are ongoing discussions….

REPORTER: But I mean in the current session?

ATTORNEY: Look, they have their procedures, they have a party meeting at the beginning of next week where they would like to be able to deal with the matter. I hope if they deal with it in the party meeting, that we can then progress it through both houses of Parliament very quickly.

REPORTER: Is your own party right behind you?

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ATTORNEY: Of course, the Bill in its present form has been through all of our party procedures for approval.

REPORTER: The Mosman kebab shop owner who featured in the press today as an alleged people smuggler. Has he been interviewed yet by the federal police or ASIO? And what are your intentions toward him?

ATTORNEY: Well let me just say this, the issue of people smuggling is a very important one. I would comment there have been many prosecutions and there are still prosecutions in relation to those who are involved in people smuggling and there isn’t a great deal of media attention from the fact that I think that over something like 220 people have been successfully prosecuted for involvement in people smuggling and there are some major organisers who have been either located here in Australia or extradited from abroad and are the subject of charges now which are still proceeding.

So there could be no doubt that, as far as the Government is concerned there is a very high level of interest in pursuing people who have been involved in people smuggling. Now I can’t comment on the status of individual investigations, save to say that the AFP, it’s not ASIO that does these matters, the AFP has a number of investigations underway in relation to SIEV 14 and those investigations involve inquiries both here and abroad and a number of people have been interviewed and there are obviously… and because this is a live investigation… a number of interviews that are yet to be undertaken.

REPORTER: Were you aware of this gentleman before he appeared in this morning’s paper?

ATTORNEY: Well I don’t think that’s an appropriate question to put to me, I’m aware of a lot of people for a lot of reasons but ……

REPORTER: Was the AFP aware of him?

ATTORNEY: Well that’s not a matter that I would comment on, that’s an operational issue in relation to an investigation which is live right now. I’ll just repeat what I said again in relation to a live operational issue. We are undertaking inquiries both here in Australia and abroad and while those matters are afoot it’s inappropriate for me to try and give any day to day commentaries.

REPORTER: Does it make it difficult to prosecute people smugglers based in Australia when their clients are kept overseas, they can’t be subpoenaed?

ATTORNEY: There are issues about the way in which you deal with prosecutions where people are abroad and there is provision in the Migration Act for the issue of visas, it’s called the Criminal Justice Visa, to enable people to come to give evidence…

REPORTER: ………… (inaudible)

ATTORNEY: Um, well you asked me the point and you were suggesting that the fact that they are not here that it would make it difficult for evidence to be given. I’m indicating to you there are a number of ways in relation to obtaining evidence that can be used in prosecutions and one of those ways is to grant a Criminal Justice Visa to somebody who may be going to give evidence, I mean that is one way… and there are other ways in which evidence can be obtained on commission as well.


I don’t intend to try and indicate exhaustively how these issues might be addressed but simply to assume that because these people were removed from Australia, to send a very clear message to people smugglers, that there would be no way in which if we needed people to give evidence to successfully prosecute somebody that that evidence couldn’t be obtained.

REPORTER: …….. more difficult?

ATTORNEY: Oh well look, these are always questions of degree aren’t they? You often face situations in which in obtaining evidence people aren’t always where you want them, but they’re issues that have to be looked at in the context of achieving a successful prosecution.

REPORTER: Minister, you say that some people have been interviewed in relation to SIEV 14, have people in Australia been interviewed?

ATTORNEY: I made it clear that in relation to this matter inquiries are being made both in Australia and abroad and I don’t intend to elaborate it any further than that.

REPORTER: ………..located the crew in Indonesia? At the Senate Estimates hearing the other night authorities were not aware of their whereabouts?

ATTORNEY: Look the focus on crew is a Labor party smokescreen in relation to the actions that they have taken in effectively knocking off one of the major legs in relation to successfully dealing with people smuggling issues. Let me make it abundantly clear as I did in Parliament this week. If you want to send a message to people smugglers you deprive them of the revenue from people smuggling. Nothing is more successful in stopping people smuggling as we have seen over the last two years than the four boats that were previously returned to Indonesia. When people start to demand of people smugglers that they deliver and they refuse to pay without a guarantee of delivery, then people smuggling stops.

REPORTER: So the crew haven’t been located?

ATTORNEY: Well, look I’m not going to give you a commentary in relation to those matters, I simply make the point that we took the view at the time when we were returning the vessel to Indonesia that bringing the whole group to Australia and enabling them to then get into the hands of advocacy groups and pursue claims for refugee status to make asylum claims, bonafide or not, with all the implications of that, in order to be able to prosecute four crew members… where given the nature of the success that we’ve had with prosecutions would not exact a very high level of penalty, would not have the same impact on people smuggling operations as returning the vessel. Now that’s the judgement we made.

Now the second point I’d make in relation to returning a vessel… we saw the tragedy of SIEV X… and there is always the potential for loss of life at seas and when you return a vessel to the perimeter of Indonesia’s maritime zone, you still need a crew on a vessel who are experienced in handling that vessel to ensure that it gets back safely. And that’s the judgement we made. We don’t apologise for that, it’s a smokescreen by Labor who do not wish to accept responsibility for their efforts in sending a very clear message to people smugglers that one of the measures that we have adopted to deal with people smuggling has been knocked away. One of the legs of our policy has been knocked away.

REPORTER: Do you feel a sense of frustration that the French have not allowed the Australian Federal Police to interview Mr Brigitte?


ATTORNEY: No, not at all. Look, the issue is quite clear. The Police were in France for pursuing issues in relation to mutual cooperation. I think it’s very important to recognise that there is an element of hierarchy in relation to what we are seeking to do. The major objective here is to protect the Australian community from terrorist attacks. That’s the major objective. And pursuit of intelligence inquiries means that those matters are going to have priority. Pursuit of questioning with a view to prosecuting somebody for being involved in perhaps a potential unlawful act is another matter and in terms of timing we are happy under the mutual cooperation arrangements to get access to Brigitte for prosecution purposes, but that will come at a later point in time and the timing is really a matter on which the professionals will advise us as to when it is best that that be undertaken.

REPORTER: ……….authorities interviewed these 14 men in Indonesia?

ATTORNEY: Look, I don’t want to get into when particular individuals are the subject of interviews, I mean that’s giving you details about an operation. Operations are not helped by commentary by Ministers. I simply say that inquiries are being pursued both here and abroad and I think those words encompass what is sufficient for understanding that we are serious about pursuing these issues but we are not going to compromise the investigation.

REPORTER: ………..public policy point………..

ATTORNEY: What is the public policy point….

REPORTER: ……….is that if you, because of your decision to send them back to Indonesia, even though you’d already excised those islands so therefore they couldn’t make an asylum claim, you jeopardised or hampered the investigation. So we’re trying the clear that up with you and you’re ………. to comment on these points.

ATTORNEY: Well you weren’t listening to me earlier were you? Because I made it very clear that we made a judgement that we would prefer to see the vessel returned to Indonesia with a crew to send a very powerful message to people smugglers that their operations were very very much impeded by what we were doing and anything else would have sent a message to smugglers that they were back in business. Now, that’s the judgement call we made. Now, you may question that judgement, that’s a matter for you.

REPORTER: Well, I’m just asking if the price we’re paying for that is that it’s going to make the investigation more difficult and make it more difficult for Australian……..

ATTORNEY: We think a bigger price to pay would have been reopening people smuggling.

REPORTER: ………..either keep them all here or send them all back. Wasn’t there a third option of keeping the Indonesian crew here and taking the rest back in the Geelong which was going to Indonesia anyway, or a third boat?

ATTORNEY: Well, let me make it very clear that in returning vessels, it’s not a matter of putting people on an Australian Navy vessel and discharging them at a wharf. Regional cooperation models envisage that if a vessel is back in Indonesia’s contiguous zone and travels back to Indonesia, that can be accommodated. Anything else would not. I mean that’s the reality, it’s important to understand that.

But the point I made before is the reality. If you put people back on the vessel which they sought to access Australia in Indonesia’s contiguous zone without an experienced crew, you



are exposing people to a potential incident at sea. And we came to the view that that would be highly inappropriate and particularly when you look at the nature of the penalties that are exacted in relation to crews for people smuggling. I mean the people who get the penalties of 7 and 8 years are major organisers. Crews receive lesser penalties…

REPORTER: …at least 5 years…

ATTORNEY: Well, it depends on the… it’s less than that because there are periods in which early release operate. If I can remember rightly, it’s in relation to the passage of legislation we prescribe minimum sentences but they are minimum sentences which still had periods of early release associated with them.

REPORTER: …………these amendments through, will you be pushing for anything else later on or does this make the ASIO legislation, are you satisfied with it then?

ATTORNEY: Well if you look at what I said in the speech, the last two paragraphs I made it clear that I had a review of the legislation. I want to ensure that it remains legislation that is fit for the purpose for which it was implemented and that means obtaining the intelligence information that will assist us in dealing with potential terrorist incidents in Australia.

Now, the fact is we’ve seen already that terrorists have shown enormous flexibility in responding to changes in situations in countries where they are seeking to find weaknesses. The only assurance that I would give the Australian people is that if I find through any review that is being undertaken, or any further practice that there is weakness in the legislation, I will not be backward in bringing forward further amendments.

REPORTER: The Sydney kebab shop owner is someone you’ve mentioned today was a person of interest to Australian authorities?

ATTORNEY: They were words I used in a radio interview in Sydney.

REPORTER: When did he become a person of interest? This morning?

ATTORNEY: I think I said in the radio program this morning I wasn’t prepared to comment on that. I used the words I did deliberately with advice and anything else only compromises the nature of the investigations in which we are involved.

REPORTER: How does that compromise the investigation, because there is an important point here……..

ATTORNEY: You must be a very experienced investigator, but good to see you. Thanks very much.