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Cabinet papers: on water matters

In a decision that had huge ramifications for stopping asylum boats reaching the coast, the Hawke government extended Australia’s territorial waters from three to 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometres).

The decision was taken in almost blissful ignorance of what lay ahead.

In a joint submission to cabinet, the Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans and Attorney-General Michael Duffy said the decision to go to the 12-mile limit was in keeping with the Law of the Sea Convention which Australia had signed in 1982.

“Although the convention is not yet in force, the right of a state to establish a territorial sea of up to 12 nautical miles is now well established,” they said.

“Some 111 states have now adopted that limit and Australia is one of only 10 countries that continues to claim a three-nautical-mile territorial sea.”

In a confidential briefing to cabinet, the two ministers emphasised the defence and security aspects of extending territorial waters.

Unauthorised aircraft, they said, would not be able to fly so close to the coastline and the “current freedom enjoyed by potential intelligence collectors” would be halted because submarines would not be within “line of sight” of land under a 12-nautical-mile limit.

“In the territorial sea, submarines are required to navigate on the surface and to show their flag,” they said.

The only nod to the asylum boat future came when Senator Evans and Mr Duffy told cabinet that the Australian Customs Service and Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service had a need to be able to exercise the greatest protective power permissible.

“The present three-nautical-mile territorial sea does not provide the scope for the powers which are seen necessary under current conditions to exercise effective customs and quarantine control,” they said.

The change to 12 nautical miles also brought most of the environmentally sensitive Great Barrier Reef under Australian sovereignty.

Cabinet records release

Cabinet records for 1990 and 1991 held by the National Archives of Australia became eligible for access from January 1, 2016. Information about the cabinet records, lists of the documents and copies of key cabinet documents, including selected submissions and decisions, are available on the archives’ website (naa.gov备案老域名). Click on the “Collection” tab, then “Popular research topics”, then “Cabinet”.

Requests for access to records not already released may be made via RecordSearch on the Archives’ website.

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