Minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, Joint Press Conference with Tony Negus and Simon Corbell, Canberra

5 July 2012

Topics: Police Overseas Service Medal, asylum seekers, border protection

JASON CLARE: Today is a very important day for the Australian Federal Police. Itís a day where we set ourselves up for the future, and itís a day where we honour the work and the achievements of the past.

Today, we have announced the establishment of a Specialist Response Group within the Australian Federal Police. It will be the biggest specialist police group in Australia and will do work here responding to incidents in Australia - across the country - as well as overseas.

Today, I've also announced that we'll be expanding the Police Overseas Service Medal to the honour - to honour the work of Australian Federal Police officers who have served overseas training other police forces and building the skills and the capability of police in countries like Afghanistan, in East Timor, and the Solomon Islands. It will take effect immediately and be retrospective. It means that about seven-hundred-and-fifty Australian Federal Police officers will be eligible for this medal.

Today, I've also announced that we'll be extending the Australian Police Overseas Service Medal to the Kiaps. Two thousand individuals will be eligible for this - people that served in PNG from 1949 to 1973, who did very important work.

And the work of Senator Kate Lundy, the work of Senator Jan McLucas, the work of Scott Morrison - the member for Cook and the shadow Minister for Immigration - all working together with myself has made this possible. But most importantly, the campaign by the Kiaps themselves for this honour has made this possible. It's long overdue and I'm glad that we are making this announcement today after the approval that we've received from the Queen.

So, it's a very important day - one that sets us up for the future and honours the achievements of the past. I'll now ask Minister Corbell to say a few words and then I'll ask Commissioner Negus to say a few words.

SIMON CORBELL: Thank you very much, Jason. And the ACT Government is delighted to recognise today the amalgamation of ACT policing's Specialist Response and security group with the AFP National's Operational Response Group to form the SRG.

This is a very important capability for the national capital. It means increased capability in areas such as bomb response, search and rescue, water police operations, police divers, tactical resolution, which is needed here in the national capital.

The ACT Government has an ongoing and important relationship with the Australian Federal Police. We have an important contract to deliver policing services for the national capital and for the Canberra community. And this enhancement of tactical and operational response capability will deliver the level of safety and security our police need in dealing with more complex, difficult and challenging situations that are part of the day-to-day task of ACT policing.

It also means more search capability for our local ACT police when it comes to dealing with large scale events. It means more specialist police when they are needed on the front line in the ACT community delivering the capability, delivering the specialist knowledge and skills needed to keep our community safe.

I'd like to commend and congratulate the AFP on bringing together these two groups and the enhanced capability it provides. Thank you.

TONY NEGUS: Thank you, Minister. Look, as you've heard, this is an aggregation of a number of different tactical operational areas of the AFP into one. It provides almost two hundred officers who will be now really working together at the forefront of tactical resolution of a range of different activities across the country.

Not only will these people be working in the ACT as Minister Corbell has said, but they will be deployed to places like the Solomon Islands, to Christmas Island, if required, and to other parts of the country to help us in the resolution of organised crime and terrorism investigations more broadly as the AFP.

So a very proud day - it's taken two years to bring this together. This group you'll see will be, as we'll see in the demonstrations very shortly, are the equal of anything you'll see anywhere in the world. Their capability is second to none and we look forward to them working as a homogenous group now to continue that for the people in the community and really the residents of the region - throughout this part of the world.

So thank you very much for coming and we'll look forward to seeing the demonstrations shortly. I think we're open to questions.

QUESTION: Minister Clare, do you have any concerns that the Border Protection and Navy are being used as a breakdown service for asylum seeker boats?

JASON CLARE: I'm happy to answer that question. Let's make sure that we address all of the questions about the police announcements first and then we can take all the questions on asylum seekers if you like. Any questions specifically on the announcement we've just made.

QUESTION: [inaudible] explain a bit more about what it means for the ACT - more jobs, and, specifically, how many more police in a scenario?

SIMON CORBELL: The amalgamation maintains the existing level of operational capability previously in Specialist Response and Security Group. So that's about fifty-six, fifty-eight full-time specialist response police. That capability is maintained. But because it is now amalgamated with the ORG to form the Specialist Response Group, we now see the capacity for police stationed here as part of AFP national operations to be available to surge and provide that additional response capability as needed to ACT policing.

So that number will vary depending on needs, but what it means is they're here and they're available and, also, they are more familiar with the needs of the ACT community because they are rotated through the ACT policing function - so a very important extra capability for our community when we have those special incidents or those large-scale events that need that additional response.

QUESTION: Would these be - would this be the group that would be used if we had another Australia Day incident with the Prime Minister?

SIMON CORBELL: So certainly, the deployment of the SRG will be done, obviously, at the operational level by the chief police officer and his commanders. But we know that we do need that capability around public order - maintaining public order, maintaining community safety at large events.

So whether it's an event involving national dignitaries and national activities or whether it's simply a large-scale public event in the national capital, these police are the type of capability needed to support frontline community policing officers. And we are maintaining that and enhancing that through the amalgamation.

QUESTION: Commissioner Negus, how regularly would you see these police officers working around the country in other states and territories?

TONY NEGUS: Look, the operational activities of the AFP are on a weekly basis, so these people will deploy to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and other parts of the country to assist in high-risk tactical resolution of organised crime matters and terrorism matters.

But again, it will not reduce the capability of the ACT to respond in matters on a daily basis here either. So - but they train together. Their equipment is purchased in a more efficient way. And it brings a greater capacity as a whole to the people of the ACT and the rest of the country.

QUESTION: Commissioner, are there any concerns by SRS or ORG members about this amalgamation?

TONY NEGUS: Look, this has taken a couple of years to organise and to have everyone come together. There have been people who have been required to relocate from Brisbane and Melbourne, as I've mentioned, and that's, again, an impost on families and individuals. But, again, I commend them for being part of what is now a very exciting new venture for the AFP.

QUESTION: Can we get back to the earlier question?

JASON CLARE: We certainly can and I think you've got first dibs.

QUESTION: Minister, do you have any concerns that Border Protection and Navy vessels are being used as a breakdown service for asylum seeker boats?

JASON CLARE: Well, here are the facts. We know that people smugglers tell the people on the boat to ring Australian search and rescue. Sometimes it's a false alarm. Sometimes it's the real thing. We treat every one of those calls seriously because our top priority is saving lives at sea.

Yesterday, the people that were on their boat were very lucky. They were very lucky because HMAS Wollongong was on route from Singapore back to Christmas Island. Now that meant that it was in the vicinity of the search and rescue area. It meant that it was able to be on the scene in terrible weather conditions within an hour.

It was work that was done by Australian authorities working together with Indonesian authorities that helped to potentially save the lives of people who otherwise would have been caught up in that terrible weather on a boat that may not have been able to cope with the weather conditions.

QUESTION: If this is a tactic that's increasingly deployed by people smugglers to tell asylum seeker boat captains to just call Australian authorities, what sort of impact is that going to have on Australia's strategic defence assets and border protection assets?

JASON CLARE: Well, let's be clear about this. This is not a new tactic. This is something that people smugglers have been doing for a long time. The work that our search and rescue authorities and our border protection authorities have been doing is superb in difficult conditions. We've got something like seventeen aircraft, about eighteen vessels, over two hundred military and border protection command people working on his project, over a hundred police officers that are tackling people smuggling and intercepting vessels.

As I said yesterday, we are throwing everything at this and the way to stop this is to remove the incentive for people to risk their life and to get on a boat in the first place. That's the way to stop this. You can intercept vessels and you can disrupt boats before they set to sea. But that's a bit like putting your thumb on the end of a hose. What we need to do is turn the tap off - remove the incentive for people to get on a boat in the first place. That's why we support offshore processing because that's ultimately what is going to save lives.

QUESTION: But do you accept that these calls are being made closer and closer to the Indonesian shoreline? Yesterday's call was, sort of, fifty-two nautical miles out?

JASON CLARE: Some of these calls happen very close to the Indonesian shoreline. Some of them happen very close to Christmas Island. We received calls from a vessel in distress last year in December that was very close to the Indonesian shoreline.

You might remember that vessel in December just off the coast of Indonesia where two hundred people drowned. Now that's another example of where we received a call saying that there is a vessel sinking, a vessel in distress where working with Indonesia, we work as hard as we possibly can to save lives. But let's be clear about this, this happens close to Indonesia, it happens close to Christmas Island. Sometimes it's a false alarm, sometimes it's the real thing. Australian authorities always take these things very seriously.

QUESTION: Before the boat that capsized last month that claimed ninety lives, it was initially just a flyover. Should a boat have been deployed straightaway - everyone has the same call, the same priority?

JASON CLARE: Well the first point to make about this, and I said it at the time, is that there'll be a full investigation to make sure that everything that should have been done was done.

You'll remember that we received a call on the Tuesday night at about 10:30. It said that a boat was in distress but didn't give the details of its location. We got more information about three and a half hours later that said that the vessel was about thirty-odd nautical miles south of Indonesia. At that time the Australian Maritime Safety Authority told the boat to head north, head back to the nearest point of land.

A number of other things occurred on the Wednesday. A Border Protection Command Dash-8 flew over the area and couldn't identify any obvious signs of distress from that vessel. It flew over again the following day and that's when it found the vessel was capsized.

But let me emphasise this point, it's important that everything that should have been done was done and that's why it'll be the subject of two investigations - an internal whole of government investigation that will involve Border Protection, Navy as well as the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. But in addition to that an independent investigation led by the WA Coroner.

QUESTION: But without pre-empting the report, if a boat's seen and the flyover's conducted and it's spotted should a boat be deployed straightaway given that it can take some time?

JASON CLARE: I'm not going to pre-empt the enquiry, I'm not going to pre empt the report. I'm not going to second guess here the decisions that operational experts make. I'm going to make sure that it's fully investigated and heed very closely the recommendations of both the Government review and the independent coronial investigation.

QUESTION: [Inaudible] Indonesia to speak with your counterparts there. Are you going to tell them that they need to do more within their own search and rescue zone, and do you believe Indonesian authorities are adequately equipped to do these sorts of search and research patrols?

JASON CLARE: We work very closely with Indonesia. Our Australian Federal Police work very closely with Indonesian National Police. Our Border Protection officials work very closely with Indonesian Customs and Border Protection officials. Our navies work very closely together.

What I said yesterday, and what the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, is that we can do more work to get our search and rescue authority to work more closely with Basarnas, the Indonesia search and rescue authority.

That will involve a number of different things. It could involve the exchange of experts, liaison officers. It could involve making sure that the computer systems that both search and rescue organisations use exchange information quickly.

But it could also involve this, and that is making sure that Indonesian search and rescue has access to the information that we have about where the merchant vessels are off the Indonesian coast so that when they are putting out a broadcast to say, all merchant vessels in the area head to this direction, they know which merchant vessel is where so they can get there quickly and they can direct their information to the right merchant vessel.

Meetings will take place over the next few weeks between AMSA and Basarnas on how they can work more closely together. I have to stress they've work very closely together over the last twenty-four hours. There are a number of teleconferences that took place between the two organisations to make that search and rescue happen yesterday, but they'll have further meetings about that over the next few weeks.

Minister Smith and I will travel to Indonesia in late August, early September along with the Federal Police, Navy and Border Protection Command and the Indonesian equivalent organisations to see how we can further improve the work that we do together, make it more seamless and more effective.

QUESTION: Can we ask you about the AFP's role in Jakarta in terms of tackling asylum seekers and whether you see a prospect of expanding the AFP footprint in Indonesia?

TONY NEGUS: The AFP work very closely with the Indonesian National Police and we have done for many years in counter-terrorism, in transnational crime more broadly, but we do have people there specifically in Jakarta working with the Indonesian National Police.

However it's important to realise that the Australian Federal Police in Indonesia don't have any police powers. They are there really as guests of the Indonesians and they work with them in supporting them, in providing advice and exchanging intelligence, that's it. But they do work closely together. We have very good working relationships and again, as the Minister said, we're keen to look at anything we can do into the future to expand that. Really the matter of whether AFP put more people into Indonesia is a matter for Government.

QUESTION: How far along is your investigation into the Speaker, Peter Slipper?

TONY NEGUS: As I said a couple of weeks ago, that's almost complete, it remains almost complete and we expect to have that finished very shortly.

QUESTION: Have you interviewed him?

TONY NEGUS: He hasn't been available for interview at this time no.

QUESTION: Commissioner, do you share the concerns of some Australian authorities that Border Protection and the AFP Office is being used as a breakdown service?

TONY NEGUS: No, look we're talking about people's lives here. We respond to issues as we need to. We investigate matters to try and put people smugglers behind bars. We've talked at some length I think about the efforts that are being undertaken by all Australian Government and Indonesian authorities to make sure that we are doing everything humanly possible here to protect people from what are perilous voyages across the sea and to stop people drowning unnecessarily. There's a range of different factors which the Minister's already described which I think are important in doing that.

QUESTION: Do you receive intelligence that asylum seeker boat captains are being told to call Australian officials early?

TONY NEGUS: We've seen that, well not just intelligence, we've seen actual cases of asylum seekers and captains ringing the Australian authorities early, whether they're at Christmas Island or earlier over the last couple of years. This is not a new phenomenon but it just seems like the last few weeks, we've had some very difficult sea states. We've had some very difficult situations that these boats have found themselves in and we've had the results that we've all seen.

QUESTION: Are you able to update us on the investigation of any people smugglers that are on Christmas Island especially in relation to...

TONY NEGUS: I'm aware certainly of the reporting of the - the Indonesian Police have released that have certainly had a person in custody. We're aware we have a person of interest who's on Christmas Island and we're working through that matter and it's really not appropriate for me to talk any further about that at this stage. But certainly we're doing everything we possibly can to bring the people responsible for these boat tragedies to justice.

QUESTION: Can you give us an update on Captain Emad?

TONY NEGUS: Sorry?

QUESTION: Can you give us an update on your investigation into Captain Emad?

TONY NEGUS: Look, that Captain Emad matter is an ongoing matter. He remains out of the country and we are continuing to look at what evidence can be collected here and throughout other parts of the world.

QUESTION: Has that man on Christmas Island been charged?

TONY NEGUS: No he has not.

QUESTION: One migration agent this morning said that people smugglers are effectively using the lack of policy as a way to cash in at the moment. Are they as across politics in Australia and do you think they are making the most of the deadlock that we have got?

TONY NEGUS: I think the extensive coverage of the issue, both here and internationally, means that I think just about everyone in this part of the region is aware of the issues around these matters so I'm not going to be drawn on what they do and don't know from our intelligence holdings. Thank you.

- ENDS -

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