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Wednesday, 30 May 1984
Page: 2153


Senator MAGUIRE(3.46) —I wish to speak on the report of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts following its inquiry concerning HMAS Tobruk. I, together with Senator Georges and Senator Watson, was heavily involved in this inquiry, which took up a great deal of time during 1983. I think it resulted in the presentation of a major report that is of great significance to this country. The origins of the exercise go back to March 1982 when the Auditor -General brought down a critical report on the HMAS Tobruk project. Originally the Public Accounts Committee planned an ordinary response to the Auditor- General's report. However, as certain factors unfolded, the Public Accounts Committee decided to undertake a full inquiry and to present a separate report on the project involving HMAS Tobruk. As the inquiry unfolded, the Committee found that many highly significant events and highly significant documents were not brought to its attention by the Department of Defence. It took prolonged investigation and probing inquiries to reveal the existence of these documents and to discover a number of events that had occurred. I should say that the Public Accounts Committee is definitely not satisfied with the approach taken by that Department.

All members of the Public Accounts Committee believe that the Committee should have been given a full and frank account of what had happened in respect of the HMAS Tobruk project. It must be stated again that the Public Accounts Committee is a committee of the national Parliament. Departmental officers, of whatever department, should not believe that parliamentary committees are to be given information only if that information can be provided on a need-to-know basis. That is just not good enough; it is a completely unsatisfactory approach. Departmental officers should be reminded that it is the function of Parliament to scrutinise public administration and that Parliament, through its committees, should, be given the information necessary to perform that function.

Some of the items that were omitted by the Department of Defence in the information supplied originally to the Public Accounts Committee were and include: Problems with the inadequate air conditioning on HMAS Tobruk; the underdesign of the footings for the deck cranes; excessive vibration; a contaminated hydraulic system; an inoperable and dangerous sewerage system; the tragic death of naval reserve cadet Kenneth Dax in 1981, the board of inquiry into that fatality; and the review of the board of inquiry into the original inquiry. These matters were not drawn to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee during its initial inquiries. That is a list of major matters and major omissions of information. Briefly, HMAS Tobruk is based on a British design, a logistic landing ship operated by the Royal Navy fleet auxiliary. It specifically updates the Sir Bedevere Class. It is a roll-on roll-off vessel with a tank deck and top deck for lighter vehicles and it carries helicopters.

In 1977 a contract was signed by the then Government for the purchase of HMAS Tobruk. It was launched in March 1980 and commissioned in April 1981. Some of the major problems identified during the inquiry of the Public Accounts Committee are quite shocking. For example, the vessel had been constructed 9 per cent overweight. The Navy has a ship which is almost 300 tonnes too heavy. This matter was commented on by the Auditor-General. As a member of parliament I am surprised and shocked that a naval vessel could be built so much overweight. Of course, that factor affects the speed of the vessel and its energy consumption. The Australian taxpayer will have to pay for that design inadequacy in the form of the consumption of excess fuel over the many years of the life of the vessel.

The excess weight is linked with another major problem of the HMAS Tobruk, and that is the fact that the vessel has restricted beaching ability. It was designed to be able to beach itself at a number of beaches around the Australian coastline so that troops could be off-loaded and deployed quickly through the bow doors. However, during the Committee's investigations it was found that, because of excess weight, the vessel could beach itself at very few Australian beaches; yet that was one of its key design specifications. It was supposed to be able to deploy troops rapidly around the Australian coastline by beaching.

It is not satisfactory for the Department of Defence to argue, as it did, that that was merely one way of getting troops ashore from the vessel. During the course of the Committee's investigation it was found that other ways of getting troops to shore did not prove satisfactory either. For example, small vehicular and personnel landing craft, designed to beach and deploy troops on shore, were not fully operational because of problems in obtaining spare parts from overseas . The capacity of those landing craft was thus limited greatly. They are two major obstacles to HMAS Tobruk meeting its principal design specifications. HMAS Tobruk also had a problem with its engine control system. During public hearings in Brisbane last year a bombshell was dropped when it was revealed in evidence to the Committee that the vessel lost engine control when it was proceeding along the Brisbane River. This had the potential of a very dangerous situation; a major vessel of the Royal Australian Navy was proceeding along a major Australian waterway without engine power.

Then we come to the faulty sewerage system. There had been several large sewerage spills in Australian ports. It was found that modifications made to a vent pipe allowed gas pressure to build up in various sewage tanks. That is believed to have been the main factor that led to the tragic death in 1981 of Kenneth Dax. The Public Accounts Committee concluded that design changes and lack of understanding on the part of the contractor and the Department about the sewerage system were most significant contributory factors in the death of Kenneth Dax, a 14-year old naval reserve cadet, in December 1981.

The original board of inquiry into Kenneth Dax's death left a number of questions unanswered. That inquiry was followed by a review of the board of inquiry. I must pay tribute to the Department for convening that review of the board of inquiry. The Department is to be highly commended for doing so. It is to be commended also for the quality of the work put into that review. It was certainly impressive work by those involved. The review virtually overturned the findings of the original board of inquiry. It established the facts and showed what could be done by a diligent approach and the application of expert skills.

I wish to pay tribute to the family of Kenneth Dax, particularly Mrs Dax for her perseverence over many years in a long fight for recognition of the facts and for justice. Mrs Dax fought the bureaucracy an was able to have established the facts about the tragic death of her son. All citizens of this country can learn from the perseverence of Mrs Dax in taking on the bureaucracy and having the facts recorded. I commend also the ratings and cadets who were on HMAS Tobruk and attempted to rescue Kenneth Dax when he was trapped in one of the heads.

In recent times the secretariat of the Public Accounts Committee has had put to it further allegations about the aftermath of the fatality on board HMAS Tobruk. The Committee has now been informed that a number of the cadets who were on board the vessel at the time of the fatality are receiving psychiatric treatment . Several of them who had attempted to rescue Kenneth Dax are receiving treatment because of the trauma of that dreadful event.

With so many problems evident HMAS Tobruk should never have been commissioned. However, the Public Accounts Committee acknowledges that broader factors were involved in the Tobruk project. For instance, there had been a loss of shipbuilding skills over the years as a number of yards were closed; and there was the lapse of a number of years between the construction of the previous naval vessel in Australia and the construction of HMAS Tobruk. We believe that those factors contributed to the problems of the project.

Question resolved in the affirmative.