Media Release
Senator The Hon Robert Hill
Minister for Defence
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator The Hon Chris Ellison
Minister for Justice and Customs

E25/04 Tuesday, 9 March 2004


Labor is profoundly ignorant of our border protection arrangements yet still plans to burden Australians with a wasteful Coastguard bureaucracy, Defence Minister Robert Hill and Justice and Customs Minister Chris Ellison said today.

Labor's homeland security spokesman Robert McClelland told the Seven Network's Sunday Sunrise program this week:

"... We don't have an interdiction capacity on our northern border - a maritime interdiction capacity."

This is simply untrue. Mr Latham should demonstrate his purported belief in integrity in public life by pulling Mr McClelland into line immediately and forcing him to retract this untruth.

Customs vessels do have an armed interdiction capacity and carry out this role frequently in Australia's northern waters, particularly in detecting, deterring and apprehending illegal foreign fishing vessels and those suspected of smuggling. The Government has ensured Customs has the legal power to undertake such duties, most recently in the amendments to the Customs and Migration Acts in 1999 which provided a comprehensive range of enforcement powers for use in the maritime area adjacent to Australia - including powers of 'hot pursuit'.

The Royal Australian Navy has also been working extensively in Australian waters to support civil authorities to detect, intercept and deter unauthorised arrivals and illegal fishing activities. Since 1 July 2003, the ADF has conducted 193 boardings of vessels suspected of illegal fishing, 44 apprehensions and 26 administrative seizures. Since the start of Operation Relex in September 2001, 19 vessels have attempted to land over 2500 unauthorised arrivals and crews in Australia. The ADF has been directly involved in 17 of these incidents and has returned 643 people to Indonesia.

Mr McClelland also claimed that:

"... under the Constitution, they (the Navy) can't use force for domestic policing activities. They simply can't. They can't use armed interdiction capacity in our zone, if you like, in our law enforcement zone... We have, literally, an unpoliced northern border."

Again, this is utter nonsense.

The Australian Defence Force does have an armed interdiction capacity in our maritime zones and the legal authority to use it - through the Government's executive authority under the Constitution and existing border protection legislation, including the Customs Act, Fisheries Management Act and the Migration Act.

The ADF may also act under the Government's executive authority under the Constitution. The Constitution does not place any constraints on the use of force by the ADF.

Mr McClelland's comments are particularly absurd given that it was Labor in 1988 that directed the ADF to provide surveillance and response forces for Customs, immigration, fisheries and other tasks throughout Australia's exclusive economic zone.

The only political party in Australia that is promoting an unpoliced northern border is the Labor Party.

With three boats for a 37,000 kilometre coastline, compared to the comprehensive suite of Customs, Coastwatch and Navy resources currently protecting our borders, Labor's Coastguard would be stretched thinner than Mr McClelland's credibility.

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