A BOAT crowded with the largest number of asylum seekers to arrive in Australia in more than a decade has been picked up near Christmas Island as the government concedes boat arrivals are placing the navy under increased pressure and it confirms vessels are literally cracking.
The Home Affairs Minister told reporters in Sydney today that the navy had found cracks in the engine room of the HMAS Armidale – the part of the boat that comes under the most pressure in rough weather – and minor cracks in two other patrol boats.
He said that Defence was undertaking a structural engineering analysis of all it’s 14 patrol boats and that it would complete a repair plan by October.
“These boats have been working hard and they’ve been working hard in rough weather,” Mr Clare said today.
“They wouldn’t have to work as hard if our politicians would just work together.”
But Mr Clare said he would not “pre-empt” the navy analysis by confirming that asylum seekers rescues in particular were damaging the patrol boats.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen conceded this morning that rescuing asylum seekers was placing increased operational pressure on the navy, when he was questioned about reports that navy patrol boats were literally cracking under the strain.
“Of course, that’s the case, but they’d also be doing other work as well,’’ he told ABC Radio.
This comes as a boat carrying the largest number of asylum seekers to arrive in Australia in more than a decade was picked up near Christmas Island.
Two navy patrol vessels went to the aid of the boat, which had 211 people aboard.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority received a distress call from someone on the latest boat at about 3pm on Wednesday.
The passenger said the boat was low in the water.
The HMAS Larrakia and HMAS Ararat reached the vessel - which was 136 nautical miles north of Christmas Island - at 7pm on Wednesday.
The weather conditions were not good enough for the navy to board the distressed boat, so it was taken under tow. By daybreak, the passengers were transferred to the navy vessels and arrived at Christmas Island last night.
The large number rescued suggests passengers and people smugglers have not been deterred by the death of about 90 people in June, when another crowded boat capsized.
Mr Clare said today that people were “hurrying” to get onto boats before parliament introduced any disincentives to do so.
More than 7300 asylum seekers have arrived by boat this year, more than half of them in the past two months. This is compared to about 4500 people for the whole of 2011.
Coalition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the Coalition was incredibly concerned about the number of people getting into boats.
"The record level of arrivals to Australia is putting increasing strain on our border protection," he told reporters in Sydney.
Mr Morrison said that government should reinstate the Coalition’s border protection polices that include temporary protection visas, offshore processing on Nauru and turning boats around where it is "safe to do so".
"This government is in a deadlock of their own fabrication," he said, adding that it was only Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s "stubborn pride" that prevented her from taking the Coalition’s advice.
The Christmas Island detention centre is nearly full and authorities have to fly people to the mainland.
Detention centres on the mainland are also under strain, despite more than 3200 asylum seekers having been released into the community on bridging visas.
This latest arrival also comes as MPs are poised to resume the heated debate on asylum seekers when Parliament returns next week. This will include consideration of the Houston Report, which cabinet is scheduled to look at on Monday.
After Parliament failed six weeks ago to agree on a policy to try to stem the record arrivals of asylum seekers by boat, Prime Minister Julia Gillard asked three eminent Australians to spend the winter break consulting all parties and to report to Parliament, before it resumed, on a preferred policy.
The group - led by former Defence chief Angus Houston - has prepared a range of options containing the various policy ideas of Labor, the Greens and the Coalition. It then cites the options it believes will be the most effective and it is understood it favours the government’s hardline approach, such as the Malaysia plan.
Parliament resumes next Tuesday. With the Greens steadfastly opposed to sending asylum seekers offshore, the government will try to pressure the Coalition.
The Coalition have repeatedly said it will not support the Malaysia plan and that they don’t need a committee to tell it what its policy is.
Mr Clare today implored the parliament to address the asylum seeker issue.
“The people of Australia have had a gutful of this,” he said. “[They’re] yelling at the Australian parliament, saying ‘just fix this’”.
- with Daniel Flitton