Malcolm Fraser addresses the Lowy Institute on Wednesday.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has characterised Australia’s interdiction and detention of more than 150 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers at sea as ‘‘piracy on the high seas.’’
He said the apprehension of the vessel on which they were travelling in international waters and their transfer to an Australian customs vessel was ‘‘in breach of international law’’, and he was unsure how else to describe it, other than as an act of piracy.
Speaking at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, he cited wire reports that a Sri Lankan police chief had said another 41 passengers recently picked up by Australia and returned to Sri Lanka would be proscecuted for leaving the country illegally.
‘‘The other thing [the police chief] said was that they would all be subject to enhanced imprisonment,’’ Mr Fraser said. ‘‘What is enhanced imprisonment? Is that a new name for torture? Sounded very like it.’’
On Monday, a Sri Lankan police spokesman was quoted by Reuters as saying that those found guilty of leaving the country illegally would be subject to ‘‘two years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine.’’
The Abbott government has not disclosed the whereabouts of the group of 153 Sri Lankans picked up at sea and is awaiting the results of a High Court challenge as to their fate.
Elsewhere in his address, Mr Fraser criticised the speech made in Canberra on Tuesday by visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with its implicit warnings to China and subtext of a strengthening Australian-Japanese defence relationship.
Mr Fraser said Mr Abe was the ‘‘ second head of government who’s made a speech that should only have been made on his own soil. The first was President Obama, when he made a speech that should only have been made from American soil..’’
Mr Fraser was referring to Mr Obama’s November 2011 speech in Australia emphasising a United States ‘‘pivot’’ towards greater involvement in the Asia-Pacific region, and the subsequent rotation of US troops through Darwin.
Mr Fraser said ‘‘there is a view in America that Australia is the best of allies because ... we do what America wants when America wants it, we won’t even ask any questions .. And that’s pretty accurate. And Obama’s speech in the parliament about the pivot was misguided and wrong.’’
He said ‘‘China has never, I think, been ... through its very ancient history an imperial power in the way those Eruoepan states, Japan and America have been...’’
He also said that he did not think that the recent assertiveness of China posed any risks to Australia, though there might be some ‘‘risk’’ to some of those on China's periphery.
Mr Fraser was speaking at the Lowy Institute in support of his recent book Dangerous Allies critiquing the US alliance. He queried the ability of Washington to prevail over Beijing in the event of armed conflict, which Australia risked getting sucked into.
Even with America’s ‘‘massive’’ technical superiority over the North Vietnamese, it had not been able to win the Vietnam war, he argued. So ‘‘ if America couldn’t beat Vietnam, do you think they can beat China? Not one hope in a thousand’’.
‘‘Australia [would be] left as the defeated ally of a defeated superpower and I think that’s rather an uncomfortable position to be in and will put Australia in greater danger than we have ever been in our history except for [when] Japan attacked Pearl Harbour.’’