Federal Politics

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Government delays action on buoy to help asylum seeker boats

THE federal government has refused to back a call by the West Australian coroner to build a mooring buoy off Christmas Island to safely tie up asylum seeker boats away from the site of the December 2010 tragedy that left 50 dead.

The government has accepted most of the coronial inquiry recommendations handed down in February that found the disaster was ''generally foreseeable''.

The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, and the Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare, said yesterday, in response to the inquiry, that surveillance patrols and radar systems around the island had been boosted in the past year to reduce the chance of boats arriving undetected.

But the government said the coroner's call for a mooring buoy away from the island's north-eastern peninsula at the relatively protected area known as Ethel beach was ''for further consideration''.

Claire O'Connor, the barrister who represented the survivors during the eight-month coronial inquest, said yesterday that the Christmas Island surveillance vessel HMAS Pirie had been babysitting another asylum seeker boat in distress at the time of the tragedy and had been unable to respond.

''There was nowhere on Christmas Island to moor it [the first vessel]. The babysitting kept the Pirie away from being able to observe the approach to Christmas Island from Indonesia,'' she said.


The Coroner Alastair Hope blamed people smugglers and crew for contributing to the deaths after the boat, carrying 89 mostly Iraqi and Iranian asylum seekers, smashed against the rocks at Flying Fish Cove.

He praised the bravery of naval and Customs officers for saving 41 people, including two crew, but he criticised a lack of boats on the island to carry out rescues in bad weather and said border protection authorities could have had better surveillance to monitor dangerous waters.

In a joint statement yesterday, the government accepted the coroner's call for a federal police search and rescue boat on Christmas Island. The government said it was also still considering Mr Hope's recommendation for two jet skis.

The Coalition spokesman for border protection, Michael Keenan, welcomed the government's response but said the potential for a repeat of the tragedy remained until people smuggling was stopped.

Ms O'Connor said it must be remembered half the passengers died on the boat.

''There have been hundreds who have drowned in the last decade on their way to Australia,'' she said. ''All we can do to make that journey safer is our responsibility, both at law and morally once persons are in Australian waters.

''More has to be done to ensure that people don't die escaping persecution because of errors we make in our surveillance, search and rescue.''

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