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Tuesday, 24 September 2002
Page: 4758


Senator SANDY MACDONALD (5:25 PM) —Mr Acting Deputy President Brandis, I congratulate you on your appointment. On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I seek leave to make a statement relating to a report of the committee entitled Loss of the HMAS Sydney.

Leave granted.


Senator SANDY MACDONALD —On behalf of the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I would like to update the Senate on issues arising from the committee's reportentitled Loss of the HMAS Sydney, which was tabled in this place on 22 March 1999. Because of the incredible amount of public interest in this matter, the committee considers it appropriate to report to the Senate on the result of its recommendations and the commitments made in the government's response.

The loss of HMAS Sydney in November 1941 with all 645 crew was a devastating event. The loss of the pride of the Australian fleet was inexplicable at the time and it remains so today. The loss came three weeks before Pearl Harbor. The Sydney sank without trace or survivors while the majority of the crew of the German raider Kormoran survived. Some people doubt for a number of reasons that the full story has been told, and there are numerous questions which remain unanswered. The account of the engagement was based on recollections of Kormoran survivors and this of course has added to the intrigue over the years. In addition, legitimate wartime attempts in 1941 to censor reports of the ship's loss prior to an official announcement being made only served to suggest to some people that the true fate of the ship and her crew was being withheld from the Australian public.

Since 1941, the debate about the loss of the Sydney and the nature of the engagement has intensified and there are many people today, including me, who would like to know more of the answers. It is the uncertainty surrounding the fate of the Sydney and the desire of many Australians to know more about the loss that triggered the committee's inquiry some years ago into the loss. In August 1997, the then Minister for Defence requested that the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade investigate and report on the circumstances of the sinking of HMAS Sydney.

The committee conducted a rigorous investigation in which over 200 submissions and more than 200 supplementary submissions were received, and a range of public hearings were conducted. In March 1999, the committee tabled a report containing 18 recommendations. In particular, it recommended that the Royal Australian Navy sponsor a wreck location seminar focusing on likely search areas for the Sydney and the Kormoran. In addition, the committee recommended that an attempt be made to locate the grave of the unknown sailor on Christmas Island, who is thought to have been a member of the crew of HMAS Sydney.

In June 2000, the government responded to the committee's report. The government agreed with the key recommendations relating to the need for a wreck location seminar and a search for the grave of the unknown sailor on Christmas Island. In November 2001, the HMAS Sydney Wreck Location Seminar took place in Fremantle. The purpose of the seminar was to provide the Chief of Navy with information sufficient to allow him to make an informed recommendation to the Minister for Defence on the viability of a wreck search. In June 2002, the Department of Defence circulated a media release on the search for the wreck of the Sydney. The Chief of Navy announced that the outcomes of the public seminar held in November 2001 `do not provide a suitable basis for an official search for the wreck of HMAS Sydney'. Vice Admiral Shackleton advised the Minister for Defence `that there was insufficient credible information to warrant the expenditure of public funds on a search for the wreck of HMAS Sydney'.

The committee reviewed the press release and immediately sought a briefing from the Chief of Navy on the outcome of the wreck location seminar. During the briefing to the committee on 25 June 2002, the Navy agreed to produce a more comprehensive statement on the outcomes of the wreck location seminar. In August 2002 the Minister for Defence wrote to the committee advising of progress made with implementation of the key recommendations. He included the Navy's comprehensive summary of the outcomes of the wreck location seminar and the search for the unknown sailor.

Historical evidence prior to 1991 suggested that the search area for Sydney is of the order of approximately 80,000 square kilometres. The committee noted in its report that the search area is of the order of 7,200 square kilometres. However, the wreck location seminar noted that this figure refers to the Kormoran wreck. The search area for Sydney is far larger since no survivor witnessed where Sydney was sunk. The wreck seminar unfortunately failed to reduce the search area any further than had already been achieved. On the basis of this finding, the Chief of Navy concluded that such a search `would be high risk, high cost and an open-ended undertaking'.

For many who made submissions to the inquiry, the possible grave of the unknown sailor on Christmas Island was a central concern. If it was the case that the body was one of HMAS Sydney's crew there was a strong feeling that it should not lie in an unmarked grave in a remote part of the Indian Ocean. In June 2001, following the committee's recommendation, Navy headquarters arranged for a visit to Christmas Island to locate the grave in the old European cemetery. The team cleared about 400 square metres of the overgrown cemetery. In August 2001 an exhumation order was obtained and 38 square metres of soil was excavated. Unfortunately, no human remains or evidence of a grave cut were found. In addition, the researchers have thus far not been able to identify evidence that more accurately defines the grave site. The Navy concluded in its summary:

Unfortunately, despite significant research efforts, little real progress has been made. No human or additional archival documents have been found, while the outcomes of the November 2001 seminar did not constitute a suitable basis for a search for the wreck of Sydney.

The committee nevertheless believes it is important for the Australian public to be kept informed of progress and the attempts that are being made to unravel the mystery of the Sydney. The minister's letter together with the Navy's summary have been posted on the committee's web site and the committee will issue a press release outlining some key findings. I trust this information will help to inform the Senate and the Australian public of some of the actions arising since the committee tabled its report entitled Loss of the HMAS Sydney. I wish to conclude by making the point that some questions may never be answered. But I say to the wives, the children and the friends who lost a loved one on HMAS Sydney all those years ago that all the evidence suggests that she fought magnificently in the true tradition of her already outstanding record as a warship in the Mediterranean and that sometimes in life we have to tolerate the inexplicable, whilst always hoping that eventually further evidence and explanation may be forthcoming.