The Prime Minister says Customs’ proposed
“Incredible Hulk” prison ship is a “very sensible” way of dealing with “a surge
of illegal fishermen”.
Is it?

Crikey hears that the project dates back to Wilson Tuckey’s days in the
fisheries portfolio – and reflects the ill-defined nature of agreements
covering activities of traditional Indonesian fishermen off the north
west of Western Australia, Australia’s unilateral tightening of
and our willingness to confuse illegal fishermen with illegal entrants.

The Navy used to have an excellent method of distinguishing between the
two – when a naval vessel approaches, fishermen flee while asylum seekers try
to approach.

But the Navy hates illegal fishermen as they consider fisheries patrols below
them. When they apprehend illegal fishermen they get a bit stuck because they have
nowhere to put them – and have to tow them in their boat to the nearest port –
normally several hundred kilometres away. That sorta slows them down a bit.

Crikey is also told that the Incredible Hulk project could well leave
the government in a dubious legal position. The Law of the Sea Convention
applies to fishermen and it is actually illegal to imprison them – equivalent
to an act of piracy.

The more you look at it, the more bizarre the project seems. Take the
PM’s “surge of illegal fishermen”. The Hulk truly must be Incredible if it could,
say, steam from Weipa to Broome to deal with a surge like that. Maybe the
illegal fishers give courtesy calls in advance to let us know where they’re
planning to surge.

There are other questions – like who will
be in operational command of the vessel, Customs or the ship’s master? Don’t
forget, the guidelines state that “the
Vessel and [the privately contracted] Crew will support a boarding of the suspected illegal FFV by
Australian government officials when prevailing environmental conditions permit”.

Just who are the crew? The tender documents
say little about whether they will be Australian, security vetted, trained in
the operation of armed vessels and firearms, trained in law enforcement or
custodial guarding.

Then there’s the kit on Customs’ wish list –
a two-bed sickbay, a fully operating surgery theatre, a separate quarantine
detention area, an exercise area for detainees, a fitness area/gym for 30, meeting and
briefing facilities, an ability to tow multiple illegal fishing vessels, redundant
systems (engines etc) for use in event of breakdown, ammunition, explosives pyrotechnics
and weapons storage and more.

All well and good, but the contract only
runs for 12 months. That’s a lot of investment and refurbishment for a very
short contract with no guarantee of renewal. And let’s not forget the humanitarian
dimension. Yes, Customs could be picking up illegal fishers and drug runners,
but they could be picking up plain ole West Papuan asylum seekers too. What
have they done to deserve thirty days below decks?

We know the winter parliamentary recess is
on, but is everybody overseas? They must be. How else could this madcap scheme
have been approved.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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