'Piracy on the high seas': Fraser slams Abbott

Malcolm Fraser addresses the Lowy Institute on Wednesday.

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.’’

Morrison defends boat secrecy

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison in Colombo on Wednesday during a ceremony commissioning two patrol boats given as a gift by Australia. Photo: AFP

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison in Colombo on Wednesday during a ceremony commissioning two patrol boats given as a gift by Australia. Photo: AFP

Colombo: Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has defended the secrecy surrounding the fate of 153 south Asian refugees being held at sea by Australian authorities as an integral part of the federal government's operations strategy.

''What I'm saying is that any other ventures that are the subject of matters before the Australian courts are matters that we will address in those courts and we have always maintained a very strong process for how we manage communications regarding our operations,'' Mr Morrison said.

''That communication protocol has been put in place by Lieutenant-General Campbell, who heads the joint agency taskforce in Australia that has command over these matters. As the minister of the government, I'm going to adhere to those protocols because they have been very important to the success of those operations.''

Speaking after the launch of two patrol boats given to the Sri Lankan navy by Australia, Mr Morrison said any talk about where the 153 refugees would end up was speculation.

''Those matters are currently before courts in Australia so I don't intend to [engage in] any further discussion of that other than [what] has been provided in the court,'' Mr Morrison said.

Asked whether he asked Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaska to consider accepting the refugees, Mr Morrison rejected the question as speculation.

''I have given you my answer to that question ... once again you're speculating,'' Mr Morrison said.

With about half the refugees being held at sea by Australian authorities believed to have come from Tamil refugee camps in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, there has been suggestions that India might accept the boat.

However, in an interview with Fairfax Media last week, B. Anand, principal secretary for rehabilitation and welfare of non-resident Tamils in the state of Tamil Nadu, said India was not able to accept any more Tamil refugees who left India by illegal means.

"The war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, so it is difficult to accept that these people can still claim refugee status," Mr Anand said. "And if they were registered here as refugees, once they leave the country illegally, we cannot take them back here."

Mr Morrison said that whatever happened to the 153 refugees, Australia took very seriously its responsibilities to people's safety.

''And to the various obligations that we have under the various conventions of which we are a signatory to and the Australian government rejects any suggestions that we have acted contrary to any of those obligations that we have,'' he said.

Mr Morrison said he was not concerned that the 41 refugees who were returned by Australia to Sri Lanka on Monday would be mistreated by Sri Lankan authorities.

''No, I'm not [concerned] and we're relying on the same assurances on those matters as the previous government relied upon,'' he said.

Mr Morrison also rejected allegations that Australian officials had mistreated any of the 41 refugees.

''I find those allegations offensive and I reject them absolutely.''