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Wednesday, 6 July 2011
Page: 7954

Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (18:55): In my time in this place I have served on many committees, as members do, but I have to say that this inquiry into the incident at Christmas Island has been the most personally challenging one. It was certainly a tragic incident. Much of the evidence we took—the images we saw and the witnesses we heard from—really did bring home what a harrowing event it was. It really was quite challenging to the members of the committee, on a number of different levels. Hearing the evidence, reading the evidence and seeing the evidence in detail did bring home the loss of life and the fact that we must do everything we can to prevent such tragedies.

I particularly thank the committee's chairman, Senator Marshall, and the deputy chair, the member for Stirling. I think they both did a very good job in handing down a bipartisan report—a report that I think will reassure Australians about the nature of this tragedy and the events surrounding it. This is very important for the country, because these events obviously have some capacity to divide the nation, and it is very important that there be a bipartisan approach to dealing with and reporting on such a harrowing and tragic event.

One cannot be anything but proud and moved by the response by Christmas Islanders that day and by the Australian Federal Police, Australian Defence Force personnel, Customs and Border Protection officials, DIAC, the Christmas Island medical services and all those involved—the people on the council and the people providing services. All the evidence we heard showed Australians acting at their best in a very trying set of circumstances. I know all the members of the committee were really in awe of their efforts, their bravery and the many small and large sacrifices they made during the course of the tragedy, the response to it and the months after it.

When you hear about the events on Rocky Point that day and when you go down there and see the cliff face and talk to some of the people who were there that morning you realise just how dangerous a situation it was and the heroism of many of those involved. We are indeed lucky that there was no Australian loss of life, and there was certainly some potential for that. There was great risk to our own countrymen. While we value every life, and we mourn those dead and missing, it did make me reflect on just how brave, how decent and how heroic those who protect our borders are and what a great job they do. I have many constituents who fly P3s out of Edinburgh. I had some idea of the vastness of the ocean and the challenges involved in border protection. But going to Christmas Island reinforced in my mind just how important their efforts are and just how honourable, decent and brave all those people are.

The response to the tragedy is outlined on pages 21 to 31 of the report. While the report notes some areas where some limited improvement could have been made—such as the grenade lifejackets and the like—it is inconceivable that we could have had a better effort made by all those involved. They responded very well. As other speakers have noted, if it had been a couple of hours earlier or a kilometre up or down the coast, it might well have been much worse. Indeed, the fact that we have 42 survivors is a tribute to all of those involved. They really did save lives that day.

The weather conditions were extreme, the worst in 30 years and possibly the worst in living memory. But when they are described to you and when you go down and see Rocky Point you understand just how challenging and difficult that it was. The report outlines those weather conditions. Those weather conditions also had a great effect on radar. Radar is of fairly limited use in spotting wooden hulled boats at any point in time, particularly in vast oceans. One important role that this report has is to put into context radar's ability to identify the small wooden fishing boats that are used for people-smuggling purposes. It puts into context the limits of human intelligence and the surveillance of vast oceans. No matter what the effort, if boats depart they will always get through. There is no perfect set of intelligence, radar or surveillance that can prevent such tragedies. It is very important that people be aware of that.

As I said before, this was a very challenging inquiry. Hearing the evidence was challenging. One thing that it brought home to me is just what a rancid trade people smuggling is. It preys on the hopes of people but it also preys on the misery of desperate people. It is a trade that plays Russian roulette with people's lives. It is also a trade that places in this circumstance our border protection forces at some risk of their lives and wellbeing. I do not think that it is a trade that is based on compassion. It is a trade that is based on greed and selfishness of the highest order. We must within the bounds of our domestic and international obligations and standards discourage this trade. It must be stopped because it can cost lives. That was the one thing I took away from being on the inquiry. We must do all we can to avert such tragedies, while acknowledging that this tragedy was a tragedy brought about by the terrible circumstances of that day.