DEFENCE: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Navy League endorses Coastwatch, rejects coast guard
, November 17, 2001
The Navy League of Australia has rejected calls for a separate Australian coast guard, when Australia already has an efficient coastal surveillance/interception organisation, Coastwatch, which is administered through the Customs Department.
Coastwatch provides a civil surveillance and response service that covers Australia's 37,000 kilometres coastline, and an offshore maritime zone of 9 million square kilometres.
Its task is to detect potential or actual unlawful activity in coastal and offshore waters and to co-ordinate a response to such detections.
Coastwatch acts on behalf of government agencies, including: Department of Immigration; the Australian Federal Police and state police; Customs; Australian Fisheries Management Authority; and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).
To meet this challenge, Coastwatch operates a fleet of about 15 specially-equipped aircraft, including long-range surveillance aircraft and helicopters. Its operations are supported by the Customs marine unit which has operated a fleet of ocean-going vessels since the 1970s.
Coastwatch runs a national operations centre in Canberra which co-ordinates and manages all surveillance and response operations 24 hours a day. It also provides a 24-hour free-phone point of contact for members of the public to provide information on any unusual or suspicious activities.
In addition, the Royal Australian Navy provides 1,800 patrolling days of its Fremantle class patrol boats and the Royal Australian Air Force provides 400 flying hours using naval Orion aircraft.
The Chairman of the Navy League's Advisory Council, Geoffrey Evans, said, "Too few Australians seem to appreciate the magnitude of their country's ocean surrounds or the number of government departments and agencies with both maritime and land-based interests and responsibilities."
He said that the problem of policing Australia's vast coastline and maritime zone had been under constant examination for more than 30 years.
"A major weakness until mid-1999 was the failure to establish an acceptable authority to co-ordinate the activities and resources of the various departments involved, even though the need was recognised, in particular by the Hudson Inquiry in 1988."
The deficiencies in co-ordination were rectified in 1999, following an inquiry ordered by the Prime Minister, Mr Howard.
"Among measures designed to strengthen the existing organisation in a four year program, the position of Director-General Coastwatch was created, and an experienced senior naval officer seconded from Defence to fill the position.
"In a relatively short time, the Director-General, with a tiny staff and the administrative support of the Customs Department, has brought together the various elements concerned and established an organisation other countries would call a Coast Guard.
"The result has been that the number of illegal vessels slipping through the Coastwatch net is less than five per cent."
Mr Evans added, "The Navy League believes that while lessons can be learned from the experience of others, Australia must construct its own organisations to suit its own circumstances and its own level of available resources, human and material."
He concluded, "Coastwatch is basically sound and nothing is to be gained by forming new departments or agencies, or messing about with the armed forces. The way to go is to improve what we already have in being."