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Shadow Home Affairs Minister James Paterson wants drones to fill the gap in watching Australia’s borders

Headshot of Katina Curtis
Katina Curtis
The Nightly
Shadow Home Affairs minister James Paterson pointed to drops in the number of air and sea patrol hours over the previous financial year.
Shadow Home Affairs minister James Paterson pointed to drops in the number of air and sea patrol hours over the previous financial year. Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

A lack of drones aiding border patrol efforts has left a big gap in surveillance efforts, the Opposition claims after a third boat in five months reached Australian shores.

But Anthony Albanese insisted his Government’s running of Operation Sovereign Borders was working as intended, with anyone who made it to Australia swiftly landing in offshore processing.

A group of nine people understood to be Chinese, turned up at the Mungalalu-Truscott airbase in the far north Kimberley on Friday afternoon. A tenth man was found on Sunday after becoming separated from the group.

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The larger group is now believed to be at the offshore immigration processing centre in Nauru.

Home Affairs and Border Force officials did not answer questions about the other man.

Nor would Mr Albanese when pressed about it several times during a television interview.

“Operation Sovereign Borders also means that we don’t comment on the specific details,” the Prime Minister said.

“We want to make it very, very clear that there is no incentive (for) coming to Australia by boat, that people won’t be allowed to settle here because we don’t want people risking their lives and we also don’t want the quite evil trade of people smuggling to be able to profit from such activity.”

Shadow Home Affairs minister James Paterson pointed to drops in the number of air and sea patrol hours over the previous financial year.

“They’re not delivering the maritime surveillance and air surveillance that we need, and it’s not a surprise that the boats are slipping through,” he said.

He raised the suggestion of drones for patrols with Australian Border Force officials during estimates hearings last October.

Operation Sovereign Borders commander Rear Admiral Justin Jones said at the time uncrewed flights could be a longer-term solution but there were no mature technologies available for similar cost now.

Senator Paterson said on Monday no progress seemed to have been made.

“It appears that no decision has been made to provide those services. And so we’ve got this big gap in aerial surveillance, which I think is a huge problem,” he said.

The Government is considering ways to ramp up patrols, with a source saying it was an ever-evolving conversation about finding new ways to tackle an incredibly difficult problem.

There has been a huge increase in illegal fishing boats seized in the area over the past year, The West Australian has previously reported.

Aerial view of Truscott Air Base taken 13/11/03. Senator Chris Ellison has announced extra surveillance for the north-west coast of Australia, with the runway at Truscott Air Base to be expanded to allow larger surveillance planes to use the airfield.
Aerial view of Truscott Air Base taken 13/11/03. Senator Chris Ellison has announced extra surveillance for the north-west coast of Australia, with the runway at Truscott Air Base to be expanded to allow larger surveillance planes to use the airfield. Credit: Megan Powell/WA News

Australian fishers have recounted seeing boats laden with people and finding rubbish with Indonesian writing on remote islands indicating people may be camping there.

The Home Affairs annual report last year showed that in 2022-23 marine patrol days fell by 6.6 per cent on the previous year and flying hours for aerial surveillance were down by 14.2 per cent. It said this was largely due to illness among pilots and unexpected maintenance on boats.

The 2021-22 patrol hours were also down, although patrols in 2020-21 were higher than during years prior.

Former department head Mike Pezzullo has said Border Force effectively operates on demand-driven funding, with the amount allocated to it by the end of the year always in his experience increasing from its original budget.

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