The 100th boatload of asylum-seekers has arrived off north-western Australia since the election of the Rudd Government in December 2007. Many Australians are now increasingly concerned that the Government, by taking a softer line on border protection, has encouraged thousands of people to embark on the hazardous journey across the Indian Ocean to get to Australia, in the expectation that they will be able to stay in the country.
Australia does have an obligation under the United Nations’ international refugee convention, to which we have long been a signatory, to accept refugees who arrive on our shores. However, we do not have to facilitate the entry of people who are using the convention to by-pass the normal process of applying for refugee status at Australian diplomatic missions overseas.
Almost all of the people who arrive at Christmas Island do so after flying from countries such as Pakistan to Indonesia or Malaysia, after which they pay tens of thousands of dollars to people-smugglers for the opportunity to sail to Australia. Such people are deliberately by-passing Australia’s procedures for processing refugees abroad.
They are delaying or preventing people who have applied for refugee status overseas, and who are often living in squalid refugee camps abroad, from having the opportunity to come to Australia under our refugee program.
This is intolerable. Just as immigrants have to undergo a rigorous process of satisfying Australia’s immigration requirements before coming to Australia, so should refugees.
Of equal concern is the fact that the Australian defence force has far too few resources available to properly maintain Australia’s coastal integrity.
Within the past few weeks, there has been more than one occasion when a boat actually arrived at Christmas Island, then rang Australian authorities to notify them of its arrival! Others have arrived at Ashmore Reef, which is much closer to the Australian mainland, and other boats have approached the coast of Western Australia.
The issue is far wider than boat people. Despite the inhospitable climate, north-western Australia is the site of some of Australia’s most important development projects. In the Pilbara are found major iron-ore mines which supply Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan. Near Lake Argyle is the largest diamond mine in the world.
In the Timor Sea are massive natural-gas rigs from where gas is piped to the mainland for liquefaction, before being dispatched by sea to destinations in north Asia.
It was during the 1969 federal election that the then Gorton Liberal Government, under pressure from the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), announced the establishment of a naval base at Cockburn Sound, Australia’s first naval base on the Indian Ocean. Fleet Base West, also known as HMAS Stirling, is the result of that initiative.
Over the past 40 years, the economic importance of Western Australia to the rest of the country has increased immeasurably, and it is painfully clear that Australia’s naval presence is incapable of meeting existing challenges in the region.
With the emergence of China and India as global economic powers, the Indian Ocean is becoming of even greater importance to Australia. Already, both countries have made clear their intention to establish blue-water navies which will give them a capacity to project power regionally. If present trends continue, we must anticipate that their power projection will become global.
We purchase an increasing volume of Chinese imports, while China is steadily acquiring mineral resources from Australia. China intends to expand further into Africa, on the other side of the Indian Ocean. China-Africa trade is already worth more than $100 billion annually, and has been growing at a rate of 30 per cent a year.
China already acquires $25 billion of crude oil from Angola each year, and substantial amounts of many other minerals, including copper, iron ore, cobalt, nickel and bauxite.
Unable to rely on either the Americans or India, it will inevitably move to protect these investments through military means.
Australia will need to respond to this new strategic situation by expanding its military presence in north-western Australia, in all three services, despite the increased cost. The facilities for such an expansion are already in place.
The Royal Australian Air Force maintains two bare bases, one near Exmouth and the other near Derby, in north-western Australia. These have fully-developed air-fields and other facilities, but no flying and support units stationed there. The closest operational base is RAAF Tindal, near Katherine in the Northern Territory.
The closest naval base to the north-west is HMAS Coonawarra, a patrol-boat base in Darwin. The army has no permanent presence in WA north of Perth, which is in the south-west of the state.
While the immediate issue facing Australia is border protection, we need to take a far broader view of the challenges which Australia faces in the Indian Ocean. The establishment of a stronger military presence in the region, in parallel with the massively expanded mining, oil and gas industries, will also help Australia to minimise human-trafficking by people-smugglers.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.