Doorstop, Parliament House, Canberra

1 November 2011

Topics: Vessel sunk in Indonesian waters, boat arrival

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I'm here to report a tragic event in Indonesian waters, where a vessel has sunk in Indonesian waters, as I say, off the coast.  Leading to advice that I've received from the Indonesian authorities, from our embassy in Jakarta, that 46 people have been rescued, six people are confirmed dead - one of which is a child - and there are approximately 20 persons missing, as we are advised by the Indonesian authorities.

We will have to wait for further confirmation to provide precise advice as to the circumstances of this tragedy and as to the numbers, but I am giving you the information that I've received, confirmed by our Embassy, provided at this point.  But there will be more, I'm sure, more examination of this matter by the Indonesian authorities and once they've confirmed further matters I want to make it very clear that the Australian Government will release that information.

This is a tragic event which underscores the absolute dire need to put in place the strongest possible deterrent to combat people smuggling and to prevent dangerous vessels embarking on a journey to Australia.

We have seen too many people lured onto unseaworthy vessels on perilous journeys and we need, therefore, the strongest possible deterrent. We need to ensure that we put in place the best option that's based on the expert advice to government and that is implementing the agreement that was struck between Australia and Malaysia.

But today and tonight it really is a time for reflection on this awful tragedy.  We need to send our thoughts and prayers to the family of those people that have perished and indeed those that have been rescued and may be injured.  And we will, I can assure you, as a government, do everything we possibly can to work with the Indonesian authorities to prevent these vessels embarking in this manner, and will continue to work with agencies such as the Indonesian National Police to continue to prosecute those people who are involved in this terrible crime of people smuggling.

This is a tragedy, something that the Government foretold. As we said, if we don't put in place the most effective deterrent, we will see an incline in the incidents of irregular maritime arrivals and will see most likely an incline in maritime fatalities.  This is a terrible situation but, as I say, more facts have to come to the fore - and I'm sure they will once the Indonesian authorities have managed to examine the matter and convey those new facts, as they find them, to the Australian authorities.

I'm happy to take some questions.

QUESTION: Minister, was the boat definitely heading towards Australia?  Do we know the circumstances?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, it hasn’t been confirmed to me that the vessel was coming directly to Australia, but I think we can assume it was likely to be a vessel that had those who might have been seeking asylum.  I think it's a reasonable conclusion to draw that it may well have been a vessel that was seeking to come to Australia and of course found itself in awful circumstances.

This has happened overnight, we only heard some time earlier today, but we need to hear more of the facts. But we are releasing these facts as we know them, as conveyed to us by the Indonesian authorities, as soon as we possibly can.

QUESTION: Where exactly did this occur?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I haven’t got the precise distance from the coast, but it was off the west coast of Java in Indonesian waters, involving of course Indonesian agencies that are involved in the rescue and indeed in the recovery of bodies.

QUESTION: The circumstances of the boat getting into trouble, do we know that?  And has the Indonesian Ambassador been here to carry out this afternoon to [inaudible]?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I haven’t heard from His Excellency, but I can assure you that the Indonesian authorities have been closely engaged with our embassy in Jakarta, and the information provided to me and to the Government has come through our embassy as a result of that information being provided to them by the Indonesian authorities.

QUESTION: With the boat actually getting into trouble, do we know what happened?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: There needs to be a full examination by the Indonesian authorities.  We will of course await advice from Indonesia about further facts in the circumstances of this vessel.  But this is a tragedy at sea and it is an awful tragedy, and of course we will hear more about this and will report as soon as we possibly can to disclose all the relevant facts when we can.

QUESTION: Are you not working on an alternative plan B, or will you continue to just blame Tony Abbott for such tragic events occurring to the future?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I think tonight is not about talking about those issues. I think it's very clear that all of the advice that the Government has received is that the strongest possible deterrent is to have the arrangement between Malaysia and Australia implemented. We make that very clear, but I think tonight we need to ensure we have all of the facts at our disposal, to release them as soon as we possibly can.

We should say no more than this: that this is a tragic maritime disaster, that there have been - as we're advised - six people confirmed dead, 46 people recovered and approximately 20 people that [may] have perished. Now those numbers may change, but these are the awful statistics that have been provided to us by the Indonesian authorities. But we have to, I think, have those confirmed by them, by the Indonesian authorities, once they've examined all of the facts.

QUESTION: Minister, are Australian authorities helping at all in the rescue effort of these 20 people?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Obviously this is in Indonesian waters. The recovery is being dealt with by Indonesian agencies. We of course stand ready to provide what assistance we can, but this is in Indonesian waters.  We stand ready to help, but at this point this is a rescue and a recovery by Indonesian authorities.

QUESTION: Are we talking within sight of the mainland?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I can't confirm the actual distance. These are things that will be provided to the Government in due course by the Indonesian authorities and we await further information and we will provide that to you as soon as we have it.

QUESTION: Minister, the people who are still missing, have they been missing so long that they're presumed drowned?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, as you know, the longer you're missing at sea in tragedies like this, the chances of survival are very slim, and every hour that goes by without a rescue is increases the likelihood that we are now looking for bodies.  But again, these are matters that really we need further information on and until we receive further information, for example, whether anyone had lifejackets or not, then we really can't confirm whether in fact those that have gone missing have perished at this point.

QUESTION: While the Government's policy remains onshore processing is it inevitable that more tragedies like this will occur?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, can I just speak about the general position that we have stated repeatedly? We have made it very clear that if we do not have the strongest possible deterrent to stop people being lured on these dangerous vessels, these unseaworthy vessels, we're going to see an increased likelihood of maritime fatalities. And if we do not have the strongest deterrent to prevent people smugglers plying their trade, we will see further disasters. We made that clear.

I, of course was, as you know, was on Christmas Island only hours after the awful tragedy on the fifteenth of December. We do not want to see further tragedies. This has happened in Indonesian waters, it's no less a tragedy and it really does underline the need for the Parliament and for all parties involved to put in place the most effective deterrent to stop this awful trade; this trade in misery, this luring people on vessels - desperate people in some circumstances - and of course too often leading to maritime disasters.

QUESTION: Minister, another boat with 92 asylum seekers on board has arrived. How long will it be before asylum seekers will need to be transferred to community detention?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, I'm advised there is capacity on Christmas Island. The vessel to which you refer was interdicted north of Christmas Island, as you say, with 90 [sic 92] passengers, two crew, and those passengers will be processed. And there'll be initial health and identity and security checks before anything further will happen, and that will happen on Christmas Island. And further decisions as to what then would occur with respect to those persons should be directed to the Minister of Immigration. But at this point, we will process those people on Christmas Island and the security, health and identity checks will be determined.

QUESTION: So just to be clear, you're not saying that Tony Abbott should take some of the blame for this situation?  But you are saying that he should look again at your Malaysian solution on the back of this, is that right?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I've made some pretty strong statements about this issue. I think it's something that needs to be dealt with and I think we need to have - we need to see some bipartisanship on stopping this terrible trade. I've said that, but tonight we're dealing with a tragedy, we need to have all the facts confirmed in terms of - and including the circumstances insofar as the vessel was concerned.

But I've made it very clear, as has other ministers and this Government generally, that if we do not put in place the strongest deterrent, we will see more vessels arrive and we will see a greater likelihood of maritime fatalities. We've been saying that all along and we were not saying that to do anything other - to underline the absolute need to implement the most effective deterrent against this awful trade.

QUESTION: Minister, we can almost guess what Tony Abbott's response is going to be, but the Opposition has offered you a solution to this since May.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, as I've said - and we're on record as to saying why his points are not the case - we have relied on the best possible advice. We have relied on the best possible advice of national security experts, border protection experts, and we know that the Malaysian arrangement will be the best possible deterrent to stop people getting on these vessels.

And it really is incumbent upon the Opposition to put aside their personal interest and move to consider that matter again. We do not want to see any more lives lost at sea and we need therefore the Opposition to understand that them standing in the way of the strongest deterrent is not in the interests of the nation and it's not in the interests of those people that are getting on these dangerous vessels.

QUESTION: Minister, the Greens have accused you tonight of rushing through legislation in order to avoid scrutiny on the Migration Act, changes to the Migration Act, which will also be retrospective. How do you respond to that?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well the bill that was debated in the House this afternoon was as a result of the Government ensuring that we clarify the offences that have existed since 1999 in the Migration Act. This bill does nothing to change or alter the material elements of the offences of people smuggling found in that act, so there are no changes. But we want to make sure that there is certainty about those offences, so that convictions and future prosecutions are not undermined in any way.

Now, we have consulted with the Greens Party on this matter since last week, we have provided them full briefings on this matter since last week and we of course also briefed the Opposition and indeed independent members. But this is an important bill to ensure that we have certainty around people smuggling offences, and for that reason we have of course introduced the bill into the House today, and we have - and I thank the Opposition for their support with respect to this matter.

But we did consult, the retrospectivity does not change or alter the elements of the offences in any way, and these offences not only go to crews that are on these vessels, but it also goes to organisers.  So these are about serious offences that we have to ensure that we have in place to stop people smugglers, and if we don't stop them, to prosecute them for committing these offences.

QUESTION: You're rushing it through to possibly pre-empt this finding in the Victoria Crown Court that's expected later this week?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I won't be commenting on matters before courts. I am advising you and I'm making clear to you that the Government wants to ensure certainty by clarifying the intention. There is no change to the offences whatsoever. This is a clarifying bill that just makes crystal clear what the intention of the Parliament was in 1999, when the original Offences Bill was enacted and incorporated into the Migration Act.  It does no more than that, and it provides certainty and we make no apology for having the strongest possible deterrent and strong penalties for this transnational crime.


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