Stance defended after boat deaths
23 October 2001

THE Government's stance on asylum seekers had nothing to do with the drowning of more than 350 asylum seekers off the coast of Indonesia, Defence Minister Peter Reith has argued, while Kim Beazley says the tragedy points to the failure of Australian policy.

The asylum seekers, believed to have been heading for Australia, drowned last Friday when their overcrowded boat sank, the Swiss-based International Organisation for Migration said today.

Mr Reith said he had no official information on the incident from the Australian Defence Force "because we've not been involved".

He told Channel Seven the Government's tough tactics with asylum seekers could not be blamed for the tragedy.

"Our tougher tactics don't go to the safety of vessels in any way," he said.

"As to the safety of vessels, that really is a matter for Indonesian port authorities and safety authorities.

"We are tough when it comes to saying that people are not coming to the Australian mainland, but we've been very compassionate in dealing with any boats that have come into our jurisdiction in terms of ensuring that they were seaworthy, that people have medical attention.

"Look, we have bent over backwards to do the right thing by people, but we are not in favour of people jumping the queue."

Opposition leader Kim Beazley said earlier that the deaths pointed to a failure of Australia's policy to deter illegal immigrants.

Told about the deaths, he said: "If that has occurred it's a major human tragedy. It is a very sad thing indeed."

He said the Howard government had failed to achieve an agreement with Jakarta that would help halt the flood of asylum seekers passing through Indonesia on their way to Australia.

"What it points to is the failure of policy," he said.

"We have not got the agreement we need with Indonesia in order to be able to ensure that those who put themselves in such danger are not encouraged to do so."

Mr Beazley said Mr Howard should have held bilateral talks on the issue with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri while both were at the weekend APEC meeting in Shanghai.

Mrs Megawati held bilateral talks in Shanghai with eight nations, but not with Australia.

"That was John Howard's challenge at APEC," Mr Beazley said.

"John Howard went to APEC and he failed on a crucial issue.

"I have never seen an Australian prime minister go to APEC and be unable to have a conversation with the US president and the president of Indonesia.

"We used to run that show."



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