Former Defence chief warns against turning boats back
Former Defence Force chief Chris Barrie has warned against trying to force asylum seeker boats to turn back to Indonesia, arguing the policy drives people to take “very desperate measures”.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott insists the policy will be a core element in his plan to stop asylum seekers trying to make the dangerous journey to Australia.
“New orders, on day one of a Coalition Government, would be given to our naval forces in the seas to our north,” Mr Abbott told Channel Ten this morning.
“They would be a border protection force, not a boat escort authority.”
Mr Abbott says the policy of forcing boats back worked under the former Howard government, and it can work again.
But retired Admiral Barrie, who was in charge of the Defence Force under the Howard government, says he is not convinced the idea would be effective again.
“My expectation wouldn’t be very high (that) it’s going to work in many cases, and I would be very conscious that our commanding officers at sea must act in accordance with international law,” Admiral Barrie has told ABC Radio National.
“The problem about the policy is it drives people to very desperate measures and I don’t think that is something that we should promote.”
Admiral Barrie, who was also the former chief of the Navy, says it sometimes took weeks to turn boats around because naval specialists first had to be flown to the area to make the asylum seeker boats seaworthy.
And he says in the past, some boats were set on fire so that they could not be turned around.
In April 2009, five asylum seekers died in an explosion when someone on board their boat – Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 36 – deliberately set fire to spilt petrol after the boat was intercepted by a Navy ship.
A coronial inquest into the deaths found that people on board mistakenly believed they would be returned to Indonesia, and planned to cripple the boat.
Several ADF members were praised by the coroner for helping to save the lives of those in the water.
Admiral Barrie says responding to dangerous situations at sea eventually takes its toll on Australian sailors.
“We are finding more and more I think boats where the plight of the people on board really does test your sense of compassion and humanity,” he said.
“What these people are really making clear…. is this is the place they want to come to – they don’t want to go to any other place.”
The major parties remain locked in a political stalemate over the best way to stop asylum seeker boats.
In a bid to break the deadlock, the Government has asked former Defence Force Chief Angus Houston to lead an expert panel to reassess Australia’s approach to people smuggling issues.
It will liaise with a cross-party reference group of MPs, but the Coalition has so far refused to nominate any representatives.
The parliamentary reference group so far includes Labor MPs Wayne Swan, Chris Bowen and Stephen Jones; Greens Senators Christine Milne and Sarah Hanson-Young; Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan; and Independent MP Tony Windsor.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says the Opposition has the choice of working towards a solution, or “carping” on the sidelines.
“We would like the whole Parliament to assist in solving this matter,” Mr Bowen has told ABC Radio’s AM program.
“If Mr Abbott is not willing to nominate somebody, of course we would accept self nominations from members of the Liberal Party as well.”
But Mr Abbott has played down the significance of the reference group, saying there is no reason why Labor can not immediately put in place some of the former Howard Government’s policies.
“Rather than sit on her hands with yet another committee, rather than bleat and bleat about it all being the Coalition’s fault, the Prime Minister should do something rather than do nothing,” Mr Abbott said.
The Greens are pushing the Government to increase Australia’s refugee intake, arguing that would help slow the flow of boats.
Speaking from Indonesia, Senator Hanson-Young says when Australia boosted its intake from Indonesia 18 months ago, there was a “dramatic” drop in the number of people getting on asylum seeker boats.