Interview with Fran Kelly – ABC Radio National News Breakfast – 4 July 2012

Topic: Asylum Seeker vessel, tackling the illegal firearms market

FRAN KELLY: As we mentioned before the news, another asylum seeker boat is in distress. The boat is apparently fifty nautical miles south of Indonesia, in Indonesian waters. It’s carrying somewhere between a hundred and thirty and a hundred and eighty people, and Jason Clare the Minister for Home Affairs and Justice joins us now.

Minister, good morning.

JASON CLARE: Good morning Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Can you give us an update on this boat?

JASON CLARE: This is all happening right now. Here’s the early information, and I’ll just couch it in these terms, though, that this is obviously subject to change.

The information I’ve got in front of me now tells me that we received a distress call from this vessel at about 4:30 this morning.

As you said just then, reports are that it’s fifty nautical miles just south of Indonesia. The two search and rescue authorities, Australia and Indonesia’s, are working on this together at the moment. The latest advice I’ve got is that the boat is still motoring along and it’s turned back towards Indonesia and is heading back to Indonesia now.

FRAN KELLY: Do we know what kind of trouble the boat’s in?

JASON CLARE: Well, the boat has rung, said it’s in distress, that it’s taking water. That’s a similar report of distress that we have from other vessels, and whenever you have a call like that you take it seriously.

As a consequence of that a number of things have happened. The Indonesian search and rescue authorities have sent out a distress call asking for merchant vessels in the area to come to the assistance of the vessel. In addition, HMAS Wollongong is on its way back from Singapore right now and is in that area. The advice I’ve got is that if necessary, if needed, it will be in the vicinity of this vessel in the course of the next hour.

FRAN KELLY: So what do you mean if necessary? Clearly, it is necessary, isn’t it for…

JASON CLARE: Well, the vessel’s reporting that it’s in distress. It’s heading back to Indonesia now. It will be onsite within the hour. If the vessel is sinking, if the vessel cannot make it back to Indonesia, then we will have HMAS Wollongong on the scene, as well as any merchant vessels that might be available to rescue the people on the boat.

FRAN KELLY: Now this is exactly the kind of incident we saw with such deadly effect in the last fortnight. Yesterday, Australia and Indonesia pledged to boost cooperation when it comes to maritime search and rescue but from my understanding none of the policy initiatives you announced yesterday would help in this case, would they?

JASON CLARE: I don’t know if I agree with that, Fran. You’ll remember that aircraft crash in Jogjakarta in 2007 that killed so many people. After that, Australia worked with Indonesian air safety authorities to boost their air capability. What we were talking about in Darwin yesterday was working with Indonesia’s search and rescue authority to improve their maritime capability.

The type of systems that the Indonesian search and rescue authority operate are different to ours. They’ve got access to less information than we do about what merchant vessels are in the vicinity when you have a distress call like this, and so the things we talked about with Indonesian ministers and the President yesterday were about how we can help to provide more capability for Indonesia’s search and rescue authority.

FRAN KELLY: I’m not saying that that won’t help in the long-term, that kind of improved capacity, but Australia is not actually, as I understand it, offering any more patrol boats at the moment and yet Indonesia has said clearly, in the wake of that tragic accident two weeks earlier where ninety people died, it doesn’t have the craft able to take to the ocean for long rescue missions. Don’t we need to help with that capacity?

JASON CLARE: Well interestingly, it wasn’t the focus of the discussions with Indonesian ministers or the President yesterday. The focus, fairly and squarely, was about making sure that our law enforcement agencies and our search and rescue authorities work more closely together.

The things that came out of the discussion were the importance of having our search and rescue experts exchanging information with Indonesian search and rescue officers, so our people in Indonesia and the reverse. There was also discussion about making sure that our computer system, that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority has, can talk to Basarnas’s computer system, sharing that information as quickly as possible about where we think merchant vessels are when there’s a distress call that goes out.

FRAN KELLY: Should we be leaving it to merchant vessels, though, because that’s in a sense leaving it to chance? I mean, if we take that tragedy, that maritime disaster two weeks ago where ninety people drowned, as I understand it – as we were told by you and others at the time – Australia basically referred it to the Indonesians to mount a rescue effort because it was closer to the Indonesian coast. Yet the Indonesian search and rescue agency, Basarnas, has only small fibreglass hulled rescue boats based in Jakarta to deploy to these accidents to cover these massive ocean areas that they’re not applicable for.

I mean, they made it clear afterwards that their boats could not head out into those waters to do the rescue. What’s the point of leaving it to them?

JASON CLARE: You make a very good point, Fran. We’ve given the Indonesians three high-speed intercept vessels. They’re designed for that offshore work, just off the coast of Indonesia. The Indonesian Navy also has a capability as well, and I understand the Indonesian Navy were sent to sea to try to find that boat as well. It’s a big ocean and when vessels are in trouble there is a great risk that people are going to die at sea.

Merchant vessels come to the rescue because that’s the rule of the sea. People and vessels make their way to vessels in distress to save people’s lives, but if we’re going to stop people dying at sea we have to do more than make sure that we’ve got the systems right and that we’ve got the necessary equipment. We’ve got to remove the incentive of people to do this in the first place.

FRAN KELLY: Certainly, we do but if the immediate task is to rescue people at sea, to stop people dry – dying at sea, we need to get the capacity in there to save people but also the systems working.

JASON CLARE: That’s right.

FRAN KELLY: Last week on Breakfast we spoke to Tony Kevin. He’s written a new book about rescuing people at sea. Let’s just hear a little bit of what he said about that accident.

[Excerpt from interview]

TONY KEVIN: We only took responsibility for the safety of life at sea emergency that we’d known about for two days when we actually saw, by Australian aircraft flying overhead, that the boat had overturned and people were drowning in the water. The minute we got a distress signal from that boat we should have responded with a safety of life at sea response.

Instead, in a bizarre and cruel way, our Maritime Safety Authority basically said go back to where you came from. Our Maritime Safety Authority sent a message to the Indonesians saying please rescue this boat. It’s leaving your country. It’s in international waters but it’s heading our way. We don’t want it, you look after it.

FRAN KELLY: Now, if…

TONY KEVIN: With full knowledge that Basarnas would probably respond to them ineffectively and inefficiently.

[End of excerpt]

FRAN KELLY: Well, as it happened, Basarnas couldn’t respond efficiently because they didn’t have the capacity to do it. It did take that long. Have you done anything, as Home Affairs Minister, to instruct AMSA to respond differently and to communicate differently with Indonesians in an instance like this?

JASON CLARE: Well, what I’ve done is ensure that there’s a full investigation to make sure that in that case everything that should have been done was done, and that will happen by way of an independent inquiry headed up by the West Australian Coroner, but also an internal whole of government review.

Border Protection Command, AMSA – who report to Minister Albanese – as well as navy are involved in a due diligence on everything that happened as part of that rescue mission to make sure that everything that should have been done was done and, if not, how do we change or improve our protocols there.

In addition to what I said before, Fran, we’ve got seventeen aircraft that are dedicated to this mission. We’ve got about eighteen vessels that are dedicated to this. There’s about two hundred Border Protection and Defence staff, about a hundred police. We are throwing everything at this, but the best way to stop people from dying at sea is to remove the incentive for them to pay a people smuggler ten thousand dollars and get on a boat and risk their life in the first place.

FRAN KELLY: And Minister, I will move on to the work you’ve also just been doing on illegal firearms, because that’s critical too. But just one last question on this, because yesterday on RN Breakfast we heard from refugee lawyer Febi Yonesta from the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute, and he says the boats will continue to leave Indonesia as long as this – quoting him – widespread government corruption flourishes in Indonesia. Immigration officials, police and navy turn a blind eye, he said, to asylum seekers being loaded onto leaky fishing vessels by people smugglers.

Is Australia – is there anything we can do to tackle Indonesia on corruption?

JASON CLARE: Well, the discussions that I was part of yesterday with the President of Indonesia made it clear to me that Indonesia is strongly committed to tackling this. The best evidence of that are the three hundred boats that Indonesian National Police have been able to disrupt over the last few years, and for that matter, the suspected people smuggler that was part of the syndicate that put this boat to sea two weeks ago that was arrested by Indonesian police last week.

I’m confident that Indonesian Police and Australian Federal Police work well and effectively together here, so does the navy, and so does our Border Protection people.

There is more that can and should be done to make sure that our search and rescue teams work closely together, and that was the focus of the discussions that took place in Darwin yesterday. I think what’s unfolding right now is more evidence of the importance of that.

FRAN KELLY: And Minister, just back to the boat that’s currently in distress, how long – what’s the soonest you think that a vessel will be able to get to that boat?

JASON CLARE: The advice I had – and this was about half an hour ago, Fran – is that HMAS Wollongong would be in the area probably between eight and nine, so information is changing. It’s all happening as we speak, but the advice I’ve got is that HMAS Wollongong should be in the area within the hour.

FRAN KELLY: It’s sixteen past eight on Breakfast. Our guest this morning is Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare, but he’s also the Justice Minister and in that capacity has been working with state – well, the state and territory police ministers to look at illegal firearms.

Minister, you commissioned a report by the Australian Crime Commission which has come back putting the number of illegal guns in Australia about – at about two-hundred-and-sixty thousand. Who is in possession of these firearms, because presumably they’re not all criminals?

JASON CLARE: It’s staggering, isn’t it? It’s a staggering figure. It’s twice as many weapons as the Australian Defence Force has. Those drive-by shootings that happened in New South Wales, the gangland shootings that we’ve seen in Brisbane and in Adelaide in the last few months triggered me to commission the Crime Commission to do some work on the firearms black market.

Most of these weapons, according to the tracing analysis that the commission has done, are weapons that weren’t handed in after the Port Arthur massacre, or are weapons that have been stolen from legitimate firearm owners and are in the hands of criminals. These are the sorts of weapons that we’re seeing on the streets being used in our major capital cities right across the country.

FRAN KELLY: Less than one per cent I think, according to this report, of that two-hundred-and-sixty thousand illegal firearms, have come into Australia from overseas. Does that make it harder to track them down and to get them off the streets? It’s harder to stop them at the ports or the post offices or however they’re coming in?

JASON CLARE: Well, it means that we’ve got to tackle this from a number of different angles. We’ve got to get the politics out of it, and understand that if we’ve got guns that are being stolen from legitimate owners or firearms in many cases that have been deactivated after Port Arthur and are now being reactivated, or even a bit of backyard manufacturing, then we need a number of different ways to tackle this.

When police ministers met last week from across the country we decided to do a number of different things which I think are all very important. We’re going to boost our ability to trace firearms, including rolling out right across the country a new ballistic system that New South Wales Police use. It enables them to get information on a firearm when they seize it from a criminal and link it to other crimes in that state or right across the country. It’s called IBIS and it’s proving to be very effective.

We also need to improve our firearm registries. We’ve got about thirty different registries across the country at state and federal levels that have information about firearms, and the advice I’ve got from federal authorities is that about fourteen thousand firearms fall off those systems every year. Now, that might be…

FRAN KELLY: And what’s the point is they fall off someone should quickly try and trace where they’ve gone?

JASON CLARE: Well, sometimes they fall off because the person’s moved interstate but it’s still registered in another state, or someone has died and the weapon is now in someone else’s possession but the database hasn’t kept up with that information. That means that that firearm could fall into the black market or fall into the grey market. Having one register that is up to date is an important way to make sure that we don’t have these weapons fall through the cracks of the system.

Another thing that we need to do, I think, is give police the powers they need to get these two-hundred-and-sixty thousand firearms off the street. We know who most of the real criminals are, that are either stashing these firearms away or are dealing in arms, trading them between motorcycle gangs and other organisations or shooting at houses. Police need to have the powers to go in and get them.

FRAN KELLY: So that means greater stop and search powers?

JASON CLARE: I think so, and I’m not talking here about stop and search powers for everyone on the street, I’m talking about repeat offenders – serious criminals that have got a record that says that they’ve been involved in firearms in the past. For those sort of people, people that police believe are involved in either selling firearms or using firearms, police need the power to be able to stop them, search them, search the car they’re in, search the house that they might be in. This is the only way, if we’re really serious about getting these two-hundred-and-sixty thousand firearms off the street.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

JASON CLARE: Thanks Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Jason Clare, who’s the minister for many things in the news at the moment, including Home Affairs, Justice and Defence Materiel.

– ENDS –