Environment Department officials might have been turning a blind eye to the sinking of asylum seeker boats by the Gillard Government, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment Simon Birmingham said today.
Hundreds of illegal entry vessels are thought to have been sunk off the waters of Christmas Island, part of the only known spawning ground for Southern Bluefin Tuna.
Under questioning from Senator Birmingham in Senate Estimates today, officials confirmed that the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC) has responsibility for investigating potential breaches of the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981.
Departmental officials told the hearing that the Act provides for dumping without a permit only in the event of emergency circumstances such as the endangerment of human life, extreme weather or other navigational hazards and that dumping could otherwise constitute a breach.
DSEWPaC did confirm they are assessing an application for a permit for the ongoing dumping of illegal entry vessels, made by an agency of whose identity they were not certain but which they thought was the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).
However, under subsequent questioning from Senator Birmingham in the relevant Estimates committee, AMSA confirmed they have made no such application.
“Environment officials have been unable to provide any indication that they took any interest in the dumping of asylum seeker boats prior to this recent application,” Senator Birmingham said today.
“Environment officials appear to have been blissfully ignorant of the sinking of hundreds of illegal entry vessels and, now that another Government agency has decided environmental approval might be necessary, they can’t even recall who is seeking the approval.
“The Gillard Government must come clean on what processes have been followed for the dumping of record numbers of asylum seeker boats under its failed policies and whether the Government has been breaching its own environment protection laws.”