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Melbourne: transcript of doorstop interview: [Coast Guard, relationship with Indonesia, boat people, Navy, submarine maintenance contract]

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MINISTER FOR DEFENCE Leader of the House of Representatives



16th October


Mr Beazley has announced a policy today in regards to Coast Guard and some other initiatives. There is absolutely nothing new in what he has released today. It is just another empty vacuous statement repeating baseless claims that he has made in the past. Mr Beazley has two initiatives as he describes them. One is the establishment of the Coast Guard for the purposes of controlling illegal immigrants, a proposition which he himself refuted only two weeks ago. He said a Coast Guard is not a resolution to the problem of illegal immigrants and today is saying exactly the opposite.

His second proposition is that we should have a closer relationship with Indonesia to deal with people smuggling. This is just a photocopy of what the Government has already been doing. Mr Beazley is proposing to send two or three Ministers to Indonesia and to Jakarta. The Government has just sent three Ministers to Jakarta. The Government has just sent the Chief of the Defence Force to Jakarta. The Government has just sent the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police to Jakarta. The Australian Foreign Minister, Mr Downer, will meet with the Indonesian Foreign Minister tomorrow or Thursday. The coordinating minister responsible for this issue in Indonesia, Coordinating Minister Yudhoyono, at the invitation of the Australian Government will be in Australia we hope at the end of November or in early December.

There is absolutely nothing new in what Mr Beazley proposes although I note that Con Sciacca, his shadow minister, says that within 10 days the Labor Party will not only have sent three ministers to Jakarta but they will have fixed the problem with Indonesia.

The third point that is worth remarking upon is the claims that the Labor Party makes about the cost of establishing a Coast Guard. You would need to appreciate that the only new money is $15 million for the establishment of a Coast Guard. Mr Beazley is going to raid the Navy to establish a new bureaucracy called Coast Guard. He is going to deprive the Navy of its entire Patrol Boat fleet. He is going to raid the Navy of both personnel and assets to establish a new business called the Coast Guard and for reasons which I’ll point out in a minute it’s obviously not going to be effective.

What we have had today though is we’ve had the shadow minister saying these new boats which are going to be paid for out of the Defence Budget but not go to Defence but these new boats will be larger and will be able to patrol the southern oceans. Doesn’t he understand that if you are going to have bigger

boats capable of patrolling the southern oceans then they are going to have to be purpose built, they are going to have to be a lot more expensive than Patrol Boats in the north and the question therefore is where is the extra money coming from or alternatively he’s going to have even less Patrol Boats than what we have got now.

Five days ago Mr Crean, the Deputy Leader, said that these new boats would be smaller. Today the shadow minister says they are going to be bigger, both of which just demonstrates the Labor Party has got no idea whatsoever on how they would go about establishing the Coast Guard. But to think that you can establish a Coast Guard for $15 million is just a joke. I mean, it just cannot be done. It would barely be enough to pay for the paint job as you paint out the Royal Australian Navy and put in, you know, new bureaucracy for the changeover.

The fourth thing that is worth saying is that again in the statement made by Mr Beazley we have a series of inconsistencies or inaccurate statements which have characterised his reasons for a Coast Guard. Now, he says, for example, a Coast Guard will be on the beat every day and the implication is that the Coastwatch arrangements aren’t. Well, that is just untrue, the fact is the Coastwatch is there everyday and he would use a lot of the same arrangements in terms of national surveillance for this task.

He says, for example, that we have had these agreements, namely the sort of agreement he proposes with Indonesia before, and he mentions China. The agreement we have with China is for China to take back Chinese nationals in the same way they’re understanding with Indonesia is they will take back Indonesian nationals. What is new is that we are dealing with people from third countries and to say that we have had this sort of agreement before is simply untrue.

Mr Beazley says that the Coast Guard will enhance Navy resources. I have official advice from the Navy that says the establishment of the Coast Guard will mean a significant detrimental operational impact on the Navy. He is going to gut the Navy of both personnel and of its Patrol Boat fleet.

Mr Beazley says he will ensure the Coast Guard is fully integrated into our national intelligence and surveillance network. Well that is misleading in the sense that it suggests that it is not now. Well of course it is now.

He says that the Navy’s warships are designed and equipped for war fighting, their crews are trained for that role not as maritime police intercepting rickety old wooden boats. In other words, he says the Navy’s personnel [inaudible] the high tech frigates. And then he goes on to say but there will be extensive cross postings between the Navy and the Coast Guard. In one breath he says you can’t use the frigates because the people are trained for the high tech business of frigates, in the next breath he says oh well to man the Coast Guard we’ll take them out of the Navy, out of the high tech warfare warships and put them into these rickety old boats. Michael O’Connor who is about the only independent supporter of the Labor Party’s Coast Guard proposal says again you have run into exactly the same objections that you shouldn’t be training naval offices as policemen. So in other words, his proposal for the exchange is disputed and rejected by one of the few public advocates there are for his position.

The last thing I want to say is that Mr Sciacca has also raised some interesting questions this morning on his radio interview in Adelaide. Mr Sciacca says that the Labor Party is opposed to using Nauru and Papua New Guinea as the places by which you might undertake processing as the Government is doing. Well, if they are opposed to taking people to Nauru and Papua New Guinea and if the Labor Party can’t get an agreement with Indonesia within 10 days or thereabouts what are they going to do with people

who are in the pipeline now in Indonesia and still heading Australia’s way?

Mr Beazley, what will you do if you are the Prime Minister with a boat load of people who have arrived at Ashmore Reef within days if you are not prepared to use PNG or Nauru? Does this mean that Labor is really signalling today that they will bring people to the Australian mainland? I think the Australian public is entitled to a response to that question. Their proposal means that unless they have got an agreement with Indonesia then they have ruled out PNG and Nauru and presumably anywhere else in the Pacific, that means that these people are coming to Australia. I think Mr Beazley should explain.


But the Navy can’t continue to monitor Australia’s northern waters indefinitely can it?


Of course it can. I mean, we pay for a Navy to manage these issues on our behalf and we certainly have an ability to sustain operations to the north. The alternative is, and this is pushed by Mr Beazley, and that is that the Navy should be on exercises or that they should be in port. Well, we think when we pay for a Navy then it’s not a bad idea for them to actually be on operations in the national interest.


But surely there are other methods that the Navy would be better deployed to under the current circumstances?


Well, the alternatives are exercises. I mean, some of the Navy personnel and ships that have been involved in this operation were in fact on exercise and we pulled them off exercise and said we think it’s more important that you be on operations than be on exercise. If the Labor Party had some other plan for the Navy apart from exercises well I’d like to know what they propose.


What happens when you do need to do some exercises or are called into action in some way [inaudible]….


Well, the question is what alternative uses, you know, are you likely to have and would you be able to sustain the current operations? And my answer to that is that we clearly can sustain those operations.


[Inaudible]…you don’t agree with the assertion that a policing role isn’t a naval, an appropriate naval…


Well, take for example an area not so much in the headlines, that is the question of policing Australian fisheries. Earlier this year we used the Army, we flew the Army to South Africa, we came to an arrangement with the South African Defence Force, we put the Australian Army personnel onto South

African naval ships and intercepted a boat which had been illegally fishing around Heard Island and wherever. Now, that was a very successful operation. It was not a wartime operation but we thought it was an appropriate function for the Australian Army and it was particularly useful that we were using our Army people in our negotiations with the Defence Force of South Africa. The Labor Party says oh no that’s a job better done by the Coast Guard. Well, that is a practical example where the best people to do it were, in fact, the Australian Army.


Don’t you think there’s fairly major demands now though in relation to potential requests for resources in the Middle East and also in East Timor?


The Government has been pursuing a reform program and we have the tooth to tail ratio, we have built it up from 42 per cent to 62 per cent. So we are certainly in a much stronger position to manage a range of operational draws on the Australian Defence Force. But if you take this argument to its logic then you would say, you know, the ADF should only ever be used for wartime activities in which case you would not be building houses for Aboriginal people in the outback. It would mean that you would not be undertaking a series of tasks which currently are undertaken by the Patrol Boats. They are flexible, they have a very good commander control arrangement within the ADF and we can use them for all sorts of different things, for example, inserting SAS troops into areas with, you know, shallow waters. They are all very useful functions for the Patrol Boat. What is going to happen is that all of those uses, or many of those uses are going to be denied to the Navy and would be inappropriately run by the Coast Guard. I mean, you can’t, for example, have in defence cooperation with some of our Pacific neighbours which have Patrol Boats, you are not going to have cooperative arrangements with a Coast Guard bureaucratic fleet as opposed to the Navy. I mean, they are Navy to Navy arrangements and we are going to lose that opportunity in the future with the establishment of Coast Guard with the Navy having no Patrol Boats which is what they are proposing.


Mr Reith, why was South Australia chosen over Western Australia for the submarine maintenance contract?


This is the deep cycle maintenance. There will be maintenance in Western Australia adjacent to the Stirling facilities but the submarines were built in Osborne in South Australia. A decision as effectively taken then by the previous Labor government to allow for the full cycle docking to be undertaken in Adelaide because that’s where the facilities for that sort of work is. That is the reason why even Mr Beazley has today agreed with the announcement by the Prime Minister because Mr Beazley was responsible for the original decisions in the establishment of the Submarine Corporation.


[Inaudible]…given that South Australia has the only Liberal Premier?



Well, these are decisions effectively set in place by the decision to establish the submarine building facilities in South Australia. The statement made by the Prime Minister is however very good news for South Australia because it does confirm that we will continue to support those facilities in South Australia and that means jobs and it also supports the build up of various Defence contracts and interest in South Australia which is increasingly important in their economy.