Subjects: Operation Breakwater, Televising Court Proceedings, West Papua

MINISTER: Today we’ve concluded Operation Breakwater which has been a very successful operation in border security to Australia’s north. 23 vessels have been seized. 197 crewmen arrested and 8 of those juveniles. 125 are at Baxter, the remainder are being processed at Darwin. This demonstrates clear cooperation between Navy and Customs in looking after Australia’s borders and the seriousness with which we regard illegal fishing to our north. We have trialled some new aspects to this. For the second time, we’ve used the Oceanic Viking, an 8000 tonne ice breaker which Customs has been using in the Southern Ocean. That was used in this operation and as well, chartering a commercial vessel to tow vessels back to port. That has been something that we’ve been looking at and I’ve been discussing this with fishing representatives and commercial interests in relation to future operations and it’s a matter which we will continue to trial. But this sends a very clear message that we are very serious about illegal fishing and of course in addition to this, some other 80 vessels have been apprehended since the beginning of this year, as well as Operation Breakwater. Operation Breakwater was from Managrida in the West to the Wessels in the East and all points north of that. We targeted specifically the larger vessels. Two stern trawlers, 35 metre trawlers registered to China were apprehended and as well 8 ice boats were involved. What this demonstrates is the increased organisation that we’re facing in relation to illegal fishing. There was some resistance in relation to this operation (inaudible) apprehensions. In some cases, shots were fires, but we now have 197 crewmen that have been apprehended. And as I say, 125 of them are at Baxter in South Australia, the remainder being processed in Darwin. The matter is subject to ongoing investigation and of course we’ll be looking in to the question of the Chinese vessels involved in this exercise.

I also want to mention the Commonwealth Government’s attitude to suggestions by the State Attorney General in Western Australia Mr McGinty that criminal proceedings be televised. Whilst that is a matter for the State in relation to State prosecutions, the Commonwealth Government does not agree with televising criminal proceedings in relation to Commonwealth criminal prosecutions.

The Government does not believe that televised proceedings are in the interests of justice, and we certainly don’t want a Judge Judy situation here in Australia.

We’ve operated very well for a very long time having our courts open to the public, but not televised. We believe that there is a danger of sensationalising proceedings, of increasing pressure on witnesses, victims, and in particular increasing public pressure on jurors in what is a very important deliberation in relation to the innocence or guilt of a person who’s on trial. We think that televising criminal proceedings will not advance the interests of justice, and as far as criminal prosecutions are concerned, we will be opposing any televised proceedings of those criminal prosecutions. And I might add that in Commonwealth cases, invariable they are high profile and of course can involve matters of security.
REPORTER: Which courts are you talking about? All courts in Western Australia?

MINISTER: Well certainly we use State courts for Commonwealth prosecutions and we would be opposed to televised proceedings in relation to Commonwealth prosecutions. Now, in relation to State prosecutions, that’s a matter for the State Attorney General. I think he’s on the wrong track in relation to televised proceedings, but in the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth, I can say that we could oppose, and take steps to stop any televised proceedings of Commonwealth prosecutions. And I say that because of experience overseas- we certainly don’t want a Judge Judy situation in Australia. The Australian judicial system has worked very well for a very long time, the courts are open to the public and if the public are interested in a trial then there’s nothing to stop anyone from attending. But we don’t believe that it should be sensationalised by televised proceedings, and importantly we don’t want added pressure for jurors who have a very important job in deliberating over the evidence that (inaudible) a trial of a person. And of course you have to think of the victim as well.

REPORTER: The Attorney General says that the courts are a bit mystical, that this is about de-mystifying the process. That people don’t usually come into contact with the court until they have to, so its not a matter of if they’re interested they go, its about making it easier for when they have to go or understanding the system better.

MINISTER: Look, the current system is transparent and has operated very well for a very long time. Australia has a judicial system which is one of the best in the world and I don’t think that televising proceedings of criminal trials will advance the interests of justice. The dangers are that it could sensationalise those proceedings which of course is not in the interests of justice, it could bring added pressure to jurors in what is a very important job that they have, and also it could provide unnecessary embarrassment to victims of crime and of course they are in a very difficult situation as it is. And also I might add, it might bring added pressure to witnesses. We certainly don’t want a Judge Judy situation in Australia and as far as the Commonwealth is concerned, where Commonwealth prosecutions are concerned, we will be taking steps to stop any televised proceeding if that is the proposal of the State Government of Western Australia.

REPORTER: What steps can you take, what power do you have to stop that from happening?

MINISTER: Well certainly in relation to Commonwealth proceedings, we have different aspects which apply, for instance for a conviction you need a unanimous decision of the jury, whereas in State law, you can have a majority decision. There are differences that can apply and we believe that as a Commonwealth Government, we have the jurisdiction to legislate how prosecutions are brought in relation to Commonwealth offences. It’s a jurisdiction which is Federal, albeit that the prosecutions are brought in State courts.

REPORTER: But McGinty says juries won’t be involved, it’ll just be opening and closing proceedings and judgements.

MINISTER: Well I also think that where you have the addresses by Counsel, there is the potential for sensationalism and can I say that it can still add pressure to jurors who are involved in a trial. We have a very good reporting system in relation to trials that have been conducted in this country for a very long time. We believe that is sufficient. The courts are public places and we believe that televised proceedings will simply add to the pressure of jurors in the important job they have and the risk of sensationalism far outweighs any prospect of de-mystifying the courts.

REPORTER: On Operation Breakwater, what’s been the benefit of using the commercial vessels?

MINISTER: Well certainly I think that where you have a commercial vessel towing in illegal vessels, it provides an opportunity for Customs vessels and Naval vessels to continue their surveillance work. And that’s primarily what we’re looking at. In this particular case, we also used Oceanic Viking to take onboard crew who had been detained and that is also an aspect which I think was beneficial. So we learned a number of lessons from this operation which previously I think weren’t trialled in the same way.

REPORTER: Can you attribute its success to the fact that these Customs vessels were able to stay out there longer and continue their surveillance?

MINISTER: Customs and Defence services are looking at that and assessing the benefit of it but I can say quite clearly that we want to trial this further and I’ve been engaged with representatives of the fishing industry and commercial interests in relation to the further possible chartering of commercial vessels. We think that it has great potential.

REPORTER: What kind of talks did you have with Indonesia about the operation?

MINISTER: Well this operation was conducted in Australian waters and of course we have every right to do that to protect our sovereign waters but I can tell you that cooperation with the Indonesian authorities continues in my area as usual. Its business as usual, I’ve had no indication that there is any diminution of cooperation between Indonesian authorities and Australian authorities.

REPORTER: When you say shots were fired, who fired them?

MINISTER: The shots were fired by Australian authorities and that was done in relation to aggressive behaviour which was exhibited and that was of course, or that is something that we’ve done on other occasions and that we are entitled to do.

REPORTER: Aggressive behaviour by who?

MINISTER: Aggressive behaviour by the alleged illegal fishermen involved.

REPORTER: Where were they from?

MINISTER: Well the crews have been detained, identities are being established. Certainly we have two Chinese vessels but the nationalities of all the crew are being established and their identities as well for court proceedings. But it’s understood the vast majority were from Indonesia.

REPORTER: The Chinese vessels - is that unusual? Have you come across Chinese registered vessels in the past or is that a new development?

MINISTER:     It is a new development that we’re seeing Chinese vessels involved and we are already investigating the extent of Chinese syndicates in relation to illegal fishing in our area. To date we’ve had no evidence that it involved transnational crime but were still investigation that aspect and don’t have a closed mind to it. But what we are seeing, are more organised attempts at illegal fishing and the Chinese involvement of course is a matter for concern.

REPORTER: Are they Chinese fishermen or are they from Indonesia or you don’t know?

MINISTER: The two vessels concerned, two stern trawlers 35 metres in length were registered in China and we are pursuing that aspect of it. As to the identity and nationality of the crew, that is also being ascertained. But it’s part and parcel of the investigation now which is ongoing.

REPORTER: Are you finding the crews are becoming more aggressive? Are there more incidences of Customs having to fire shots?

MINISTER: In recent times we’ve found that there has been more aggressive behaviour and I think that has been exhibited more in the organised illegal fishing that we’ve seen. That is, I would say has been more related to the ice boats and the larger vessels but certainly we’ve seen an increase in more aggressive behaviour and that’s something which is of concern to us and indeed on more than one occasion we’ve had to fire shots.

REPORTER: Can you just clarify, were the shots fired at the Indonesians or the Chinese boats?

MINISTER: Look as to the particular circumstance of that detail is an operational one and I don’t necessarily want to discuss that at this stage but this will no doubt will be the subject of court proceedings in relation to the apprehensions that have taken place but I can say that shots were fired and they were fired by Australian authorities.

REPORTER: When you say fired, you mean just as warning shots to…….

MINISTER: They were warning shots and they were not fired directly at the crew involved.

REPORTER: You mentioned that there were juveniles onboard or involved. That age are you talking about?

MINISTER: We understand there are eight juveniles who have been apprehended out of the 197 and we are ascertaining their ages. As you can appreciate, these people don’t travel with their passports or travel documents and ID and of course that’s always an important aspect of the investigation so it’s very important that we ascertain their age. They will be dealt with under normal protocols for dealing with juveniles. It’s not the first time we’ve apprehended juveniles, but of course it sends a very clear message that even if you are a juvenile you won’t escape detention and apprehension.

REPORTER: Is there any indication that these fishermen are working with any of the Papuans that are making it to our shores?

MINISTER: We’ve not seen any link between illegal fishing and any attempts to enter Australia illegally by West Papuans but can I say that in relation to the latest development, Customs CoastWatch is still investigation the matter. We’re carrying out investigations in the Torres Strait. It has been reported that six or seven people have illegally entered Australia and that they were located on Bamboo Island. We’re still ascertaining the detail of that and we can’t confirm that at this point. But we are investigating the matter, we’ve heard reports and we’re following that up.

REPORTER: Who have you heard reports from?

MINISTER:   Well, a number of sources have reported to us that six or seven people from West Papua have illegally entered Australia.  Mention has been made of Bamboo Island. We don’t have that on our charts and we’re ascertaining if perhaps another name has been used in relation to that but, certainly, we’re speaking to people concerned and that is an investigation which is ongoing in the Torres Strait.  It’s being carried out by Customs and CoastWatch.

REPORTER:  When precisely did you get the information about Bamboo Island?

MINISTER:    We heard information late yesterday afternoon and we immediately dispatched CoastWatch and Customs to carry out investigations to confirm or otherwise the entrance of these people but I can say that we can’t confirm this at this stage.  Investigations are proceeding.

REPORTER:   Are you concerned that, given that the 43 West Papuans were granted visas, that that does open the floodgates for others to try and make it into Australia?

MINISTER:   Any illegal entrant into Australia is of concern to the Government and, of course, West Papuans are no different to anyone else to the extent that if an illegal entrance is made into Australia or our borders are breached we take it very seriously and they will be apprehended and dealt with according to our laws.

REPORTER:   What other measures do you look at now?  Do you look at turning boats around and sending boats home or, what kind of measures do we look at to stop more West Papuans coming to our shores?

MINISTER:   Well, certainly, we have assets deployed to the north of Australia in relation to border control, not just in relation to illegal fishing and any aspect of illegal entrance into Australia via our borders is something of great concern and we’ll take necessary steps to avoid that from happening.

REPORTER:   Do necessary steps involve turning those boats around?

MINISTER:   Well, what we have done is to interdict people who try to enter Australia illegally and, of course, they’re dealt with according to our laws.

REPORTER:   Given that you’ve never heard of Bamboo Island and there is a lot of islands up there, how confident can you be of even finding these people if they have arrived?

MINISTER:   Well, it may be that they’ve used another name for the island and that is something we’re trying to ascertain at the moment but, certainly, we’re investigating sources in relation to the information.  It’s being carried out on the ground in relation to Customs and CoastWatch and I don’t think I can comment further than that but, certainly, we’re taking the matter seriously.

REPORTER:   Regarding illegal fishing, is there any indication that there will be use of commercial vessels funded in the Budget that’s going to be announced in May?

MINISTER:   Nice try with the Budget.  Look, I’m not going to comment on what may or may not be in the Budget but, certainly, we have said we want to trial further the use of commercial vessels where they can assist in a non-operational fashion.  Obviously, for the interdiction of illegal fishermen, we need to use Navy and Customs, people who are trained, have the lawful authority to go about that work and who are armed but in relation to ancillary work which may well assist us such as towing vessels into port, that I think has great potential and its certainly something that we’re exploring from a Customs point of view.

REPORTER:   Do you, speaking of budget, do you have a cost on how much Operation Breakwater was?

MINISTER:   We haven’t assessed the cost for Operation Breakwater at this stage and that’s part of the debriefing that will take place but it comes within our border management budget and, of course, we’ve had two other operations of this scale, Clearwater I and Clearwater II, and we’ll continue to have these sorts of operations in the north.

REPORTER:   The West Papuans, have they been in contact with any Australian citizens or anyone on so-called Bamboo Island?

MINISTER:   Look, we are still trying to ascertain whether in fact there has been an illegal entry into Australia by any West Papuans.  We have heard reports, we are following up those reports and carrying out investigations.  I think I cannot comment further than that other than to say it’s a matter of concern and it’s an operational matter being conducted by Customs and CoastWatch.

REPORTER:   Of the fishermen in custody at the moment that you have, how many do you expect to be charged?

MINISTER:   That’s a matter for the fishing authorities and, of course, that decision will be made by the prosecuting authorities when they look at the evidence that we’ve gained in relation to the apprehensions but 197 crew were apprehended and they are all in detention.

REPORTER:   Do you know how many of those were first-time offenders?

MINISTER:   That’s to be ascertained as well.  We’re going through identity, nationality and, of course, whether or not they’ve been before our courts before.

REPORTER:   Is the scale of Breakwater to the same scale as Clearwater I and II?

MINISTER:   I think that it is a similar operation but with different targeting.  We certainly were looking at the larger vessels, the potential of any organised attempts at illegal fishing and also trialling the commercial vessels to assist with towing in vessels and, of course, this was the second time that we’ve used Oceanic Viking to the north.  So, it was different in its nature but in its extent it was still a comprehensive operation which involved Navy, Air Force, Customs and CoastWatch.

REPORTER:   How was Viking used in the first instance?

MINISTER:   Oceanic Viking was used in the Gulf formerly to assist with vessels in the apprehension of suspected illegal fishing vessels, to bring those vessels alongside and temporarily house suspected illegal fishermen. 
In this case, we looked at using that as a method of holding, for a very short period, suspected illegal fishing crew and, of course, Oceanic Viking certainly had a great deal to offer in this exercise but we’re assessing the benefits of that and, of course, you have to remember that we have to collect the evidence, establish the identities of these people, the nationalities and also carry out health checks and the health check, of course, is something which is very important.  Oceanic Viking has a good deal to offer in that regard.

REPORTER:   So, are they being detained on their boats in Darwin harbour, or on land?

MINISTER:   125 of the crew are detained in Baxter in South Australia and I understand the remainder are being processed through Darwin at the detention facility in Darwin.

REPORTER:   Do you expect many of the first-time offenders to, if they are determined to be first-time offenders, to be sent back without charge which has been the case in the past?

MINISTER:   That does depend on the evidence concerned and that is a matter for the authorities involved, not me.  I don’t determine who is prosecuted or not.

REPORTER:   Do you think that policy’s working?

MINISTER:   I think that, certainly, we are sending a very clear message that we’re serious about illegal fishing.  It is of concern.  It’s a serious issue for us and we’ve made representations to the Indonesians at very senior levels.  I’ve done that myself with my counterparts.  I will continue to do that and I raised the issue just in visits to the region three weeks ago and it may well be that we need a regional response to illegal fishing in order to contain this.  We did much the same with illegal people smuggling, counter terrorism and also drug trafficking and I think that we may well have to use the same methods and we are pursuing cooperation across the region in relation to illegal fishing because we’re not the only country in South East Asia that’s complaining of illegal fishing.




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