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Incident of 15 December 2010

MOSS, Ms Belinda Jane, Assistant Secretary, Territories West, Territories Division, Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government

YATES, Mr Julian, First Assistant Secretary, Territories, Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government


CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government. I note that the Senate has resolved that an officer of the department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted.

I welcome departmental officers. The committee has received your submission, for which we thank you. We invite you to make some opening remarks to the committee to be followed by some questions.

Mr Yates : Thank you for that opportunity. First, I seek your permission to table an update to the table in our submission of the actions taken in response to the Christmas Island Emergency Management Committee's report.

CHAIR: There are no objections to the tabling of that.

Mr Yates : At the outset, I acknowledge the bravery and fortitude of all who played a part on the day of the tragedy in atrocious weather conditions. It is thanks to the heroism of Commonwealth personnel and the Christmas Island community that 42 lives were saved. We express our sincere condolences and sympathy to the families and loved ones of those who died in the shipwreck of SIEV 221. I draw your attention to the efforts by staff of the Indian Ocean Territories Health Service, the volunteer rescue services and the Australian Federal Police for their truly outstanding endeavours to save life.

A member of our staff. Dr Julie Graham, received an Australia Day medal for her services on the day.

I would also like to draw the committee's attention to the outstanding support provided by agencies of the Western Australia government during and after the incident. Our submission covers this in more detail but I cannot stress enough their willingness to provide any support that we requested. Now the Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government is responsible for the provision of state type services to the non-self-governing territory of Christmas Island. This is achieved through service delivery arrangements with 41 Western Australian agencies, 28 contracts for services such as port and airport management and the direct provision of services including health and power. These arrangements are further described in our submission.

The provision of the marine rescue capability on Christmas Island is through the following arrangements: firstly, the Australian Federal Police through their community policing function which is funded by the department, is responsible for emergency responses on the island, including marine search and rescues. Secondly, there is a volunteer marine rescue service unit, established on the island in around 2006. The department supports the VMRS through funding and equipment support and training support as well. The West Australian Fire and Emergency Services Authority, commonly called FESA, provides support to Christmas Island which includes the acquisition of specialist equipment, training for volunteers—including for marine rescues—and operational advice when requested. The department funds this through an SDA with the West Australian government.

Emergency management planning on the island is the responsibility of the Christmas Island Emergency Management Committee which is chaired by the Administrator. The committee's membership includes the AFP, the shire council, representatives of volunteer organisations and infrastructure managers. The committee maintains emergency management plans and conducts exercises to test readiness when responding to emergency situations. These arrangements have been externally reviewed in 2008 and 2010, with copies of the reviews and actions taken being incorporated in our submission.

On the day of the SIEV221 shipwreck and afterwards, the department provided numerous services including triage and emergency medical care at Ethel Beach, arranging for temporary morgue facilities as the existing morgue facilities were insufficient to deal with the numbers, sourcing additional body bags, sourcing and coordinating emergency services from Western Australia, including Western Australia Police in a specialist role, counselling services, a disaster response hotline, various medical specialists and provision of coronial services. Liaison between the department and other agencies, including Customs, Immigration and the AFP, was cooperative and extensive. Ongoing assistance provided by the department included arranging patient care for the injured and counselling services for island residents and others who were directly or indirectly impacted by the events of the shipwreck.

The tragedy has led the department to reflect on whether its actions were enough and how we might have done things differently. We believe that we worked well with the various agencies to coordinate the provision of services during and after the incident. Communication and cooperation between the agencies were good. We are in the process of implementing the recommendations of the Christmas Island Emergency Management Committee's report, and I have provided you with an updated table on where we have made progress on that. We are working closely with the AFP and the VMRS regarding the provision of search and rescue vessels. While final decisions are being made, we have ensured that an interim capability is in place through the lease or in fact the loan from WA FESA of the Tom Reed, a vessel for the volunteer marine rescue service. This vessel has been on island since 9 February 2011. In addition we have funded the AFP to move one of their RHIBs. or rigid inflatables, from the mainland to island for as long as required this vessel has been on island since 29 March.

Additionally, the 2011-12 budget includes $9 million in funding to extend the wharf at Flying Fish Cove and we have received a strategic business case from a contractor on the project and are moving to develop a procurement strategy. The project will extend the wharf to enable a patrol boat to dock alongside, thus removing the need to bring people in by barge. The wharf extension will also benefit the community as it includes a low-level platform which fishing or dive boats could tie up to and which cruise ships could unload their tenders. I do have to note here that this extension would not have changed the reality that the port was closed on the day. It is not an extension that will be available in any weather condition. It will increase the ability to offload people but it does not mean people can be offloaded in any weather condition, so the port will still suffer periods—some of them extended periods, where it will be closed because of the severity of the weather.

Whilst Commonwealth agencies on the island are well-connected and meet regularly to discuss issues as they arise, we have identified a need to improve dialogue here in Canberra. We are therefore going to establish an interdepartmental committee, to be chaired by this department to coordinate whole-of-government policy issues and investment proposals for Christmas Island.

In conclusion we are committed to continuing to work with the Christmas Island community and other key agencies, including the AFP, Customs and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, to improve our ability to effectively respond to future emergency situations on Christmas Island and its coastal waters. We will look to this committee's findings as well as those of the WA coroner to consider more ways in which we can improve our on island capacity to deal with emergencies. Thank you for the opportunity.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Yates. Ms Moss, did you have anything to add?

Ms Moss : No, thank you.

CHAIR: Mr Keenan?

Mr KEENAN: I wanted to focus specifically on the boats that were available on the day, as opposed to what is available now. We know that the weather on Christmas Island on 15 December was very, very bad—how often do weather conditions like that occur?

Mr Yates : Thank you. Weather conditions for the island in that regard are seasonal and driven very much by the tropical weather patterns. The past year has seen a particularly active tropical weather season and the port was closed for in excess of two months, virtually continuously, from early December through to February. Because of the variation in seasons across years it is difficult to say precisely how long it will be closed but the swell season, over, say, about 100 years of occupation on Christmas Island, is well known for causing extended closures. From year to year you can have periods where the port is barely closed at all and then you can have long periods, such as we have experienced at the end of last year and this year, where the swell closes it for extended periods.

Mr KEENAN: Certainly it is a regular occurrence that the weather is that bad on Christmas Island.

Mr Yates : It is. It is a regular and known occurrence that the port will be closed for extended periods.

Mr KEENAN: Who would normally be responsible for sea rescue? Totally excepting the incident that we are looking into, let us say a boat was fishing at Christmas Island in relatively rough conditions and they got into trouble. What would be the normal response on Christmas Island?

Mr Yates : The Australian Federal Police has the lead for that. When an emergency like that occurs an alert message of some form is received—and there is a variety of ways that can be done, through marine VHF radio, mobile radio, an emergency locator beacon—that goes through whichever system has picked it up first to the Australian Federal Police, who then coordinate some appropriate response, and they would take into account the weather conditions, the urgency, whether there are vessels immediately nearby or whether it is necessary to launch a local vessel taking into account weather conditions at the time.

Mr KEENAN: And the AFP at the time had one vessel on Christmas Island, which was the Colin Winchester?

Mr Yates : That is correct.

Mr KEENAN: But that could not be put to sea on that day because of the rough weather conditions. Could it have been put to sea on any other day?

Mr Yates : That is a question that would be best answered by the AFP, about their specific vessel. My general understanding is that in a safety of life at sea situation, the master of any vessel, subject to being able to do so safely, can respond even if it is going outside the classification of their vessel.

Mr KEENAN: But that boat was purchased by the department for the AFP, was it?

Mr Yates : That is correct, on the advice of the AFP. They were doing a larger boat acquisition process and proposed to us the acquisition of this vessel as part of their fleet to replace a vessel that they had on Christmas Island.

Mr KEENAN: When that vessel was purchased, your department did not have any responsibility for Christmas Island, did they?

Mr Yates : The department of regional Australia did not, but the territory's function has moved with various machinery of government changes from the then Department of Transport and Regional Services to the Attorney-General's Department, and now to the new department. So the new department did not, because it did not exist at that time.

Mr KEENAN: So the boat was purchased by the department of regional Australia in 2007 for the AFP.

Mr Yates : That is correct.

Mr KEENAN: But it is part of a larger fleet of AFP vessels, is it?

Mr Yates : That is correct.

Mr KEENAN: But it is the only one that has been purchased by the department for the AFP.

Mr Yates : There are in fact two, because a similar boat was placed on Cocos (Keeling) Islands as a part of that process. The AFP approached us in 2007 with a business case to say that their existing vessels on Cocos and Christmas were in need of replacement and that they had done a procurement for vessels they needed elsewhere in Australia and recommended to us that the leisure vessels would be appropriate for Christmas and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Mr KEENAN: And has it come to pass that those Leisure Cats are appropriate for Cocos and Christmas?

Mr Yates : The contractual requirements for the delivery of the vessels in terms of the business case that was proposed to us was for the 2C category which was, on the advice given to us, suitable and appropriate. We also, at the same time, acquired a similar vessel for the marine rescue service and took advice from the Fire and Emergency Services Authority there on suitability, and they provided advice to us that they were suitable; indeed, they had similar vessels in their volunteer marine rescue services in Western Australia and the vessels were required to have the appropriate 2C certification by the appropriate Western Australian certification authority, which was providing certification for smaller vessels at that time, and the vessels did in fact have that certification.

Mr KEENAN: I am not familiar with the way you certify boats, but what was it that made AMSA say that those boats could not go to sea? They were certified by the Western Australian department—sorry, which Western Australian department?

Mr Yates : The Western Australian Department for Planning and Infrastructure at the time included, I believe, a marine division as they called it, that ran the vessel certification processes for smaller vessels.

Mr KEENAN: So when was this particular boat certified by that department?

Mr Yates : That was in 2008. When the boat was manufactured they issued the certificate. The certificates last for varying periods depending on the vessel. In 2009, a decision was made to transfer the certification of smaller Commonwealth vessels to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. In terms of the volunteer marine rescue vessel on Christmas Island, they undertook a survey in 2009 and issued a five-year certificate subject to annual inspections. My understanding is they did the same for the AFP vessel on the island.

Then in August 2010 when they did their annual inspection of those vessels and the other comparable vessels in the fleet, they had determined that there were concerns regarding the vessel's stability, as I understand it. At that point they provided three months for those issues to be investigated so the vessels could be used through until November 2010. We worked closely with the AFP through our harbour master on the island, who has responsibility for the maintenance for the VMR vessel, the Sea Eye, to determine what work could be done to make the vessels compliant with the AMSA survey requirements. At the end of November, I am not sure of the exact date, we had not been able to form a view that we could successfully bring the vessels back into survey due to the cost of moving the vessels to Perth—because we were able to determine that the work could not be done on island—and bringing them back, whether that was viable, given that once you take a boat off the island, because of the transit times by ship it is absent for an extended period of time. We were working in conjunction with the AFP to say, 'Okay, it looks like we probably need to replace those vessels.'. We had not finalised that process by mid-December when the emergency occurred.

Mr KEENAN: But if that vessel had been unseaworthy or not allowed to go to sea for such a large period of time, why was it not replaced with something that could be?

Mr Yates : We had started to identify a replacement process, but because of the—'delay' is not the right word—simple logistics of saying: 'Well, okay, what's the issue around these vessels? Why have they been unable to meet the AMSA survey requirement, and what do we need to do to get a vessel that is going to meet the AMSA survey requirement?' It is something that does take time to make sure we do not get into a situation where we have a vessel that is unable to meet the survey requirements in future.

Mr KEENAN: So the vessels there—the Tom Reed, which is a WA FESA vessel, and the AFP have now got a RHIB—could they go to sea if we saw similar conditions to December 15?

Mr Yates : My advice has been that no vessels could be launched on that day. I should add here that there were on the island a number of other Commonwealth vessels available and in survey—not rescue vessels—that we had the capability of launching; they were serviceable. There are also a large number of private vessels whose members are part of the volunteer marine rescue service that could have been launched, but the key fact is that the weather was so poor that no vessels, regardless of their survey status, could have been launched, and they were decisions made by the harbour master and the police officer in charge on the day, and from what I have heard, I believe those decisions were entirely appropriate and probably saved further lives.

Mr KEENAN: But that applies to vessels launched from Christmas Island because clearly, of course, you could launch RHIBs from the naval vessel because that occurred.

Mr Yates : That is correct.

Mr KEENAN: Is there a type of vessel that you could purchase that would be available for use in that sort of sea state?

Mr Yates : I have not received any advice that suggests that there is.

Mr KEENAN: All right.

Mr Yates : But I should note here: I am not an expert in this area but none of the advice from the experts that we have used has given me any indication that there were vessels that could have been launched on the day. Information that was given to me prior to this when we were in fact looking at some of these issues is that a vessel big enough to stay at sea permanently is quite a large vessel, and that sort of vessel has to be permanently manned and mobile because none of the mooring systems on the island are able to be used in periods of really poor weather. The island does not have any enclosed harbours; they are all open. Over the period from December through the February, the main port at Christmas Island was closed for that entire period and no vessels could tie up at the moorings because of the weather. If you have a vessel that is big enough to operate in any weather conditions, you cannot take it out of the water on Christmas Island, so it means it needs to be permanently manned and permanently operational. In fact, you saw this even with the Navy and Customs vessels which were quite large—I am sure you will get more information on that this afternoon— my understanding is that they needed to shelter from the weather conditions on the other side of the island.

Mr KEENAN: But the Tom Reed and the AFP RHIB that is there now would be able to operate, certainly not on the sea state that we saw on December 15, but they would be able to operate in worse seas, if you like, than the Colin Winchester that was based there prior.

Mr Yates : I could not comment on that. I do not have the expertise. I understand they are in the same survey classification class but I am not able to comment in a meaningful way on their relative ability in sea states.

Mr PERRETT: Excuse me, Chair, can I just seek clarification on that point? Is it the case that even the RHIBs could not be launched on the day like December 15? I know they can operate—because obviously they did—but they could not be launched from land—

Mr Yates : That is my understanding.

Mr PERRETT: Is that right?

Mr KEENAN: Yes, that is certainly what I have been led to believe prior.

Mr Yates : The issue, as I understand it, is the wave energy when the waves hit the island. Because it is a sea mountain, there is no run up for the waves. The energy of the wave is dispersed in an extremely short time and period so that wave zone is ferocious. I have been on the island in comparable conditions and it is just ferocious.

Mrs MARKUS: Can I just follow on, because you talked about the challenge—I suspect you are referring to anchoring—and that is because beyond a certain point from the island it is impossible, because of the depth of water, for anchoring to take place.

Mr Yates : It is. In all practical senses, a ship cannot anchor at Christmas Island. By way of example, the mooring system in Flying Fish Cove: the depths of chain that attach the buoys go to 400 metres. It is one of the deepest water mooring systems in the world—in fact, it may be the deepest. I might add that it costs us an enormous amount of money to keep it serviceable because of that. Water depths become really deep extremely quickly as you move from the island. There is no practical way for a vessel to actually anchor.

Mr KEENAN: Was the department concerned prior to 15 December that the AFP vessel on the island was unserviceable?

Mr Yates : We were working very closely with the AFP and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, particularly through our port contractor, to try to resolve this question. When it came up in August that the vessels had failed the annual inspection we were very concerned because of the importance of having marine rescue capability on the island. The initial action was to determine whether the vessels there could be brought into survey by modification or repairs. That is not finally settled from our viewpoint, but I think we are coming to the conclusion that the most appropriate action is probably long-term replacement rather than attempting to bring what are now three- and four-year vessels back into survey. It may be better value for money to acquire new ones.

Mr KEENAN: So from August 2010 the AFP vessel could not go to sea under any circumstances?

Mr Yates : No, that is not correct. My understanding is that in August both vessels failed their annual inspection but that AMSA provided a three-month extension to the survey approval so that the vessels could be used up until November for general purposes whilst these investigations were undertaken. I also understand that AMSA have advised—and they are probably better placed to answer this question because it is a technical one—that, if the masters of the vessels considered it safe to do so, even after the survey certificates had expired they could still use them in a safety of life at sea situation. Quite clearly on the day concerned decisions were made on the island that no vessels could be launched.

Mr KEENAN: What other vessels were available if the AFP vessel was subject to a negative finding by AMSA?

Mr Yates : In a general sense from the Commonwealth's viewpoint our port operates another three vessels. Two are the pusher barges, which you have probably seen regularly in photographs in the newspapers bringing detainees to and from the vessels. They were available and in survey. They are not rescue vessels but, if weather conditions had been suitable for launching, the pusher tugs could have been launched and provided some ability. Certainly, if you needed to tow a vessel, those vessels would be appropriate for that sort of thing, subject to size. They could not be launched because of the weather conditions. We have a pilot vessel—the Fatima—that could have been launched. It is in a lower survey classification and does not really have any particular appropriateness for this sort of activity. There are numerous private boats on the island. Many of the owners of those boats are members of the volunteer marine rescue service. Because members of volunteer marine rescue services are out on the water doing things, when an emergency occurs quite often those private boats are the closest vessels to respond. If a member of the volunteer marine rescue services takes action in that regard they are covered by insurance whilst they are doing the emergency response. Again, on the day none of those vessels could be launched because of the weather.

Mr KEENAN: What about jet skis? Could they have been launched in that sea state?

Mr Yates : You would need to ask someone who understands the operation of jet skis.

Mr KEENAN: The department has accepted a recommendation that a jet ski be purchased. Why is that?

Mr Yates : Basically, because the advice from the volunteer marine rescue service is that for some incidents a jet ski could be an appropriate response. If something were to happen on a relatively calm day very close to the rocks, a jet ski could get in very quickly to pick up an individual. If someone falls off a cliff close to the cove, that could be a very quick form of response. I go back to the advice I have received that no vessels of any sort could have been launched on the day. I suspect that would cover jet skis, but that should really be answered by someone with specific understanding of the performance capabilities of jet skis, which I do not have.

Mr HUSIC: I want to take you to page 10 of your submission where you outline all of the various bodies that are available to assist in emergency management. In particular, volunteers are relied upon a lot—is that correct?

Mr Yates : That is correct.

Mr HUSIC: On page 11 you talk about emergency preparedness and community preparedness, are you familiar with those sections?

Mr Yates : Yes.

Mr HUSIC: You talk about competency based training provided for volunteers and also leadership training for volunteer leaders. Are these mainly for people who say that they are prepared to work within an organisational structure, say St John's, or the equivalent of the emergency services? Is that provided only for those people?

Mr Yates : That has been the main approach we have taken in the past. The competency training is particularly important for the volunteers in the fire and emergency services unit and of course in the Volunteer Marine Rescue Service and St John's Ambulance. One of the things that the community has sought through the Christmas Island emergency management committee is to broaden some of that. In the table that we have distributed we have given some advice on where that is going. It is an area certainly for learning, in terms of responding on this island, that engaging the ad hoc volunteer and finding a way of improving their ability to assist in these events is quite an important one.

Mr HUSIC: On the Parsons Brinckerhoff review, looking at the materials that have been provided to us, is it that the territories division of your department commissioned this work or the Attorney-Generals did?

Mr Yates : We were in the Attorney-Generals Department at the time—in fact, I commissioned the report because I made an assessment that emergency management is something that does need to be kept under review. Having an external party have a look at the arrangements would give us some useful insights on what further things we could do to improve it.

Mr HUSIC: From what I understand on page 13 of your submission under 3.5, dealing with the Parsons Brinckerhoff review, the department supported 31 of the 32 recommendations. Recommendation 18 was to establish a community emergency management officer position in the Indian Oceans Territories to coordinate and drive emergency management throughout the community, but the department does not support this recommendation. One of the things that struck me is comment that we have received that particularly non-professional volunteers had been affected by what they had seen. Given the things that I have taken you through so far based on your submission, does the department maintain its position of opposition to the establishment of this emergency management officer, insofar as they might be able to drive some of what you were talking about—the training to deal with these type of events?

Mr Yates : That position is under consideration at the moment. More recently, I have had discussions with the relevant Fire and Emergency Services Authority officer, Mr John Winton, who provides the support under the service delivery arrangement, to say, 'How can we lift the support provided to the community in this regard?' The issue for me in terms of the community emergency management officer is the cost. To establish the position on the island in the first year is about $250,000, which I would have to redirect from somewhere else—

Mr HUSIC: Can I just clarify, you are saying that setting up a community emergency management officer position would cost $200,000?

Mr Yates : Over $200,000 to recruit someone, move them to the island, house them and pay their salary; that is correct. Having permanent positions on the islands, and we have quite a number, are not inexpensive. So that requires some resources which I would need to make judgements about. Is this the most effective way of getting that outcome? The view has been given to me that an alternative way of getting the same outcome is to increase the level of support we get from the Fire and Emergency Services Authority of Western Australia. It is still in consideration at the moment.

Mr HUSIC: But you have SDA's with which you would need to provide them with payment anyway.

Mr Yates : That is correct. It is about which is going to deliver a better outcome. That is what we are trying to see. In terms of considering the community emergency management officer position, it has been recommended again by the Christmas Island Emergency Management Committee, and yes we are considering it.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What is the key element of consideration? What is the most effective way to deliver the service or the impact of the cost?

Mr Yates : The critical consideration is the most effective way to get the outcome that we need. But in thinking about how I deliver the outcomes, I have to be conscious that these are all costs.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I accept that and I understand that you are responsible for your budget. If the primary consideration is how to get the best outcome, considering the concerns you have outlined in your submission and your evidence and the evidence we have heard from others, surely someone who is in a position to drive and facilitate the training for those ad hoc volunteers, and the engagement and the ability to respond when needed, I struggle to see how it could be delivered in the best possible way by a part-time person based in Perth.

Mr Yates : The response I would give to that is that that is a view. An alternative view that has been put to me is that the risk of having a single identified person full time on it is that it becomes that individual who is the person who does that and you can get some disengagement as well from that because it is the person's problem rather than the community's problem. I have not formed a view as to the right answer, but what I am determined to get is the outcome, which is to strengthen that side of it.

Mr HUSIC: Would it not be beneficial to lift the skills and capabilities of what would no doubt be identified as a source of assistance—this ad hoc source of assistance? I am not saying that you would be shifting responsibility to them. My question is more from the point that non-professionals who feel compelled by virtue of not allowing someone else to suffer get involved and they are not necessarily capable from an emotional perspective to deal with the after-effects of that intervention. Do you not feel that there would be some benefit in being able to raise the skills base or the ability to deal in that situation?

Mr Yates : I agree with that proposition and that is the outcome that we are endeavouring to find. It is a question of what is the most effective way of getting the outcome.

Mr HUSIC: There is something that does not follow on page 14 and 15 of the submission. On 14, 4.1 says, 'At approximately 0940hrs''

Is that Australian Eastern Standard Time?

Mr Yates : Daylight time.

Mr HUSIC: this was sighted. Then on page 15, the third paragraph says:

... the EMP for Christmas Island was activated by the Territory Controller ... 6:20 a.m.

What is that time difference?

Mr Yates : That is island time. My apologies for that. We should have been more explicit. That is an error on our part not being explicit on which time we are referring to.

Mr HUSIC: It did not follow.

Mr Yates : You are completely correct on that. The 6:20 is island time.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What is 9:40 island time?

Mr Yates : That is 5:40 island time. I should say that this information is based on our material. Other agencies have more detailed records, particularly Customs and Border Protection, and their timings are probably more explicit and accurate than ours.

Mr HUSIC: I think this is probably important from an evidence point of view: 40 minutes from when the SIEV was sighted was when the EMP was activated—is that correct?

Mr Yates : Approximately.

Mr HUSIC: Thank you.

Senator FIELDING: I think it was reported that SIEV221 was off the coast 500 or 600 metres. That makes me wonder whether SIEV221 could have crashed into one of the Navy boats that were only five or six nautical miles away, if no-one knew the SIEV was there? I am not being funny. We did not know the boat was in that vicinity. I am not sure why no-one knew it was there before.

Mr Yates : That is not the question I can answer. I am aware that the coronial inquiry in Western Australia is looking at that specific point in some detail and I am very reluctant to comment on it. It is outside our field.

Senator FIELDING: I am interested to know about the throwable grenade life jackets and the inflatable life rings. If they were available, would they have been thrown in by the volunteers around the area? Have I got the picture right?

Mr Yates : That is correct. If they had been available, they would have been held by the volunteer marine rescue service. That is what I would expect. I am speculating a little here, but this is what we would have done in a normal course of events. With an event like that, from my understanding on island, members of the volunteer marine rescue service were aware of the problem extremely early in the sequence of events and had those been on the island, they would have gone and got them out of the marine rescue storage shed, presumably where they would have been held, and taken them straight to the site. The distance is quite short so it would not have taken a great deal of time.

Senator FIELDING: It is probably a difficult question to answer, but would those devises have saved more lives?

Mr Yates : I can only give a hypothetical answer from what people on the island have told me. But common sense tells you that when you are throwing a life jacket, a bulky thing, into a strong wind and you are trying to get it across waves, it would be difficult for anyone to throw it any great distance. Whereas a compact grenade-type life jacket, someone reasonably fit will be able to throw further. Whether it would have made a difference is speculative. We have certainly accepted the advice that these are appropriate to acquire and have in fact done so.

Senator FIELDING: You said in your submission on page 20 there were some issues with communications and they are addressed in the recommendations. You state:

Availability and use of radios proved difficult at times because of inadequate hand held radios ...

What sorts of problems was that causing? It would not have saved lives or would it just help, or was there a bit of both?

Mr Yates : I was not on the island on the day, so I cannot comment as to whether it actually would have made a difference in saving lives. The advice we had was that the number of radios did not enable as effective a communication as was desirable. So we have accepted that advice and acquired some hand-held radios. Also into the trailer that is being acquired with the assistance of FESA, there is an intention to have more of a base station set-up as well. If they need to go to a remote part of the island where perhaps coverage from the marine VHF repeaters is not as good, they can set up a local communications channel.

Senator FIELDING: I want to get back to the counselling services that were provided. Has there been a debrief from those who have provided the counselling services, the psychologists or psychiatrists, I cannot remember which ones were sent or whether both were sent? Has there been a debrief on what the survivors and the rescuers have been feeling? Obviously there is confidentiality involved here. Has there been a debrief with those experts? They would have been provided from outside the department, I assume.

Mr Yates : I cannot comment regarding survivors because that was handled with the department of immigration. The feedback I have received through our departmental reporting is that the counselling was appreciated by the people who attended it. I am not aware whether there was a specific debrief of the counsellors. I would be happy to take that on notice and provide advice.

Senator FIELDING: It would be useful to have that debrief to see what they found, not the specifics but the generalities about what else could have been provided.

Mr Yates : I would be happy to take that one on notice. I do not know specifically.

Senator FIELDING: Thank you.

Ms Moss : Senator, if I could just add to that. I know that the committee is going on to the island. I am sure you will be talking to people from the health service then and it may well be that they can give you a more specific answer at that time when you are on island.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I am interested in the communication between the emergency management response team and that of border protection and customs. Obviously there are lots of different ways in this process by which information is transferred and the response is determined. At what point did the emergency response team as managed by your department first become aware that there were some emergency?

Mr Yates : From the information I have seen it occurred as residents, some of whom are members of the volunteer marine rescue service, were out and about as they do. Christmas Island people tend to get up early. It is a characteristic of the place. Many people were out walking in the vicinity of Rocky Point. It is a common thing to do. I know that members of the volunteer marine rescue service, such as John Richardson, became aware that there was a vessel there and there was some sort of an issue with it very early on in the piece. They started making calls on mobile phones and the marine radio.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Was that prior to 5:40 island time?

Mr Yates : No, my understanding is it was after that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: After that?

Mr Yates : That is correct.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Somewhere between 5:40 and 6:20?

Mr Yates : That is right.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: The locals were out walking and saw it with their own eyes, not through any type of surveillance?

Mr Yates : That is correct. At the same time triple 0 calls were being made.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That was going to be my next question.

Mr Yates : Again, I am not well positioned to answer that. The coronial inquest has taken significant evidence on that. The AFP and Customs and Border Protection are better placed to give you the definitive responses on that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: When someone calls triple 0 in that vicinity, where does the call go?

Mr Yates : My understanding is it goes into the normal Telstra triple 0 system, gets passed to the Western Australia Police, who take those calls. They then have an arrangement to pass that the Australian Federal Police on the island. The AFP can give you a much more detailed answer than I can on that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So the call is made on island to Perth, a long way away, and then the information goes back to the AFP, who are stationed there?

Mr Yates : That is my understanding, but I stand to be corrected by the AFP, who have the detail on that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: At the same time as people were eyewitnesses to the boat and alerting the agency to the fact that an emergency response was needed, you were already aware that some emergency calls were being made.

Mr Yates : When you say 'we', if you are referring to the Australian Federal Police they would have been.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: No, I am referring to the capacities on the island of the emergency response team.

Mr Yates : I believe that residents who were seeing the event who were members of one of the emergency services were also making calls to say that there appeared to be a problem. It was a typical event occurring in front of peoples' eyes where often get multiple alerts. The thing I really have to note here, from what I understand speaking to people, is that the community's response was extremely good. In fact, the administrator's report to the minister covering the emergency management committee's report highlighted how well the island's arrangements worked.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I am not doubting that at all

Ms Moss : Earlier on you, talked about the emergency response for which this department is responsible. We do not have a direct responsibility for emergency response as a department.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: As a department, but there is facilitation of those services—

Mr Yates : And funding.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I guess this is the point, is it not?

There is the department for regional affairs coordinating with the WA government delivering the normal services that any state government would in this situation, but you obviously have to liaise with the various different Commonwealth agencies such as the AFP and the local council. I guess this is part of the questioning: if it is about people just getting on when they see an emergency and dealing with it or having to wait for certain clearance for things. In this situation it seems as though people did the normal thing that you would do when you see people in distress and that is they went and responded.

Mr Yates : That is correct. They went and responded and the system to alert things at the national level worked well. The national coordination arrangements got in place extremely quickly. And given that the island is a long way away, the support in terms of additional counsellors, specialists, WA Police and coronial services happened very quickly and with very few issues.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I accept that the AFP and border protection have responsibility for the surveillance and all of those issues before people physically saw the boat and of course we will take those questions to them. In relation to the local community consultation group, the organising committee specifically for the memorial service, the primary role of your department through the support of the administrator and others was to coordinate that organising committee—is that right?

Ms Moss : From my understanding, and I was there on island and attended the memorial service, the shire had the primary role in organising the memorial service. It was done in consultation with a number of other agencies, including our administrator, our staff on island, DIAC and others, but the shire was the main organising body.

Mr CHAMPION: I have some quick questions about the grenade life rings which were referred to by Senator Fielding. Are they thrown out into the water?

Mr Yates : The best way I can describe them is this way: think of an old German potato masher grenade. It has got a bulbous thing, a bit of a handle on it. You throw it, it hits the water and it has a mechanism that says, 'I am in water', and it then explodes up into a life ring. It seemed a very good idea. We had not encountered them as a concept until some of the locals from the volunteer marine rescue said: 'These have come on the market. They are a good idea'—this is after the event—'We should get some'.

Mr CHAMPION: Are there any risks involved? This involved an extreme weather event. Presumably Rocky Point is a description of what it is.

Mr Yates : It is very rocky, yes.

Mr CHAMPION: Are there any dangers for people getting too close to the edge? Are there any dangers with these objects being thrown into the water? Could they hit someone or something? I understand the context of things that might be a risk that one would undertake. Have you looked at that at all?

Mr Yates : Absolutely. At any cliff edge, particularly a marine one, there is a risk. The emergency management committee has also identified a series of points around there where it is desirable to install more fixed life rings and fixed tie-down points for ropes. They did use ropes to secure people at the time. You have to be very careful in how you do this and this is one of the one of the issues about the use of untrained volunteers. If you are going near cliff edges, you need trained volunteers with appropriate equipment and the island has some of that capability. It is something that needs to be continually tested. In the sea conditions that you had, if you were able to actually physically hit someone with the life ring that would be an outstanding result because they are going to be right there. From the video I have seen, the wind conditions and the sea state would have made it incredibly difficult to throw anything. A small compact thing is going to go further. I cannot say how much difference it would have made on the day.

Mr CHAMPION: You said the response was excellent. Was there someone who took charge down on Rocky Point? Obviously it was a distressing event.

Mr Yates : The existing system as identified in the plan went into play very quickly where the administrator, Mr Lacy, took if you like a strategic overview of the higher level activity in communicating back to us, and the officer in charge of the police, Peter Swan, was the territory controller and was in charge of the site. Again, from all that I have seen and heard, I would have to commend the work of those individuals and of everybody there. One of the big learnings for us is that the plans, arrangements in that regard, worked and worked well.

Mrs MARKUS: In the interests of time, I would happy for you to take my question on notice. We have talked about the challenge with the adequacy of the actual radios. Obviously that is one aspect. There are protocols about communication and the use of radios between different organisations and agencies involved, including the volunteer emergency services you have referred to. Could you clarify in writing with the committee what your plans are to improve those and also comment on the inadequacies or weaknesses of those protocols and training around the radio communications issue? What would your plans be to improve the protocols of communication between the various agencies? I know different radio frequencies, for example, are often a challenge. How would that be coordinated and what would you recommend? How was it not coordinated leading up and during the actual event?

Mr Yates : I am happy to take that on notice. I do not think that it was the case that it was not coordinated; there was a set of arrangements in place that did in fact work. The incident identified ways that it could be improved. There were arrangements; they did work but improvements have been identified.

Mrs MARKUS: I am not saying that it did not work completely. If there were weaknesses, could they be identified as well as how it could be improved.

Mr Yates : Certainly.

Mrs MARKUS: If there are no weaknesses, you would not need to improve it.

Mr Yates : Certainly.

Mr KEENAN: Going back over the evidence you have given, Regional Australia is responsible for emergency management on Christmas Island but that is subcontracted to the AFP?

Mr Yates : There is a significant number of stakeholders involved in emergency management. If emergency management is effective, it is owned by the whole community not any one particular agency. In terms of delivering the state type service, we have responsibility for making sure that there are arrangements in place.

Mr KEENAN: Clearly, the department has made a determination that the arrangements in place in December were not satisfactory. Since then there have been extra vessels placed on the island, a RHIB by the AFP and a vessel from FESA in WA. Was it considered adequate that for four months Christmas Island did not have a vessel that was available to go to sea because the vessel that were purchased specifically by the department for the AFP to be able to do that was deemed unseaworthy by the Commonwealth's own agency?

Mr Yates : Certainly if there had been no vessels able to go to sea, I would agree with you. But there were a number of Commonwealth vessels in survey but none could be launched.

Mr KEENAN: The Leisure Cat was—

Mr Yates : The LeisureCats were—

Mr KEENAN: It was the primary response vessel though, was it not? It was supposed to be the primary response vessel.

Mr Yates : That is correct. Is it satisfactory from our viewpoint that this has occurred? No, of course, it is not. We are very engaged and determined to get a long-term solution. In fact, we were able to get an interim solution to the island quite quickly—virtually as soon as the port could be opened we had a replacement vessel there.

Mr KEENAN: That was January this year?

Mr Yates : That is right.

Mr KEENAN: And the RHIB was placed there in March of this year?

Mr Yates : That is right, the AFP one. But there are and there were at the time, a number of vessels that could have responded if the sea conditions had allowed them to be launched, not including the Leisure Cats.

Mr KEENAN: But was that not the role of the Leisure Cat? Was that not the whole purpose?

Mr Yates : Absolutely that was their role and that is what they were purchased for, and they had the relevant survey certificates for a considerable time.

Mr KEENAN: By the Western Australian department but not by the Commonwealth agency—

Mr Yates : And by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority in 2009.

Mr KEENAN: Has the department got any involvement in the consideration of a radar system for Christmas Island or is that other agencies?

Mr Yates : In a supporting role inasmuch as things like providing power, assisting with land issues but not in terms of any of the technical operational parts. We contributed to the ability for them to conduct it and will continue to support it but have no role in determining its effectiveness.

Mr KEENAN: Was there consideration given by the department prior to the incident in March for a land based radar system to be installed on Christmas Island?

Mr Yates : Not in terms of us giving consideration to whether there should or should not be.

Ms Moss : In terms of exact timing, I would have to go back and check my records, but we were certainly approached—

Mr KEENAN: This is not an issue which has just been raised, since December 15, this is an issue that has been live prior to that?

Ms Moss : Indeed, I have been approached before that, I could not tell you exactly when offhand. When they wanted to set up a trial of a radar system, we were approached to say whether there was a particular site we would make available and whether we could support it in terms of power if it was decided to install one. On both those issues we said 'certainly', and I understand subsequently that the Defence Science and Technology Organisation staff went onto the island and met with our staff on island and determined an appropriate site in consultation with them and we facilitated that as we could.

Mr KEENAN: In terms of the capability of that radar, shouldn't the questions be directed to the defence department about that rather than to your department?

Ms Moss : Or to Customs and Border Protection.

Mr KEENAN: Would the Border Protection Committee of cabinet have played a role in these events of 15 December it had not been disbanded?

Mr Yates : That is not a question I am able to comment on.

Mr KEENAN: Did your minister sit on that committee prior to it being disbanded? The Border Protection Committee of cabinet was apparently the body that the Border Protection Taskforce reported to prior to it being disbanded.

Mr Yates : I am actually not able to answer your question, I think that would be better asked to Customs and Border Protection. I am not able to comment on the status or otherwise of that type of committee.

Mr KEENAN: The department is represented on the Border Protection Taskforce?

Mr Yates : Yes.

Ms Moss : By invitation only, we are not a permanent member.

Mr Yates : By invitation on issues where we are able to provide—

Mr KEENAN: Presumably your minister was not on the Border Protection Committee of cabinet then, is that a fair assumption?

Ms Moss : I think the question would be also, and I do not know the answer, of when it was disbanded, because our department was only relatively recently set up.

Mr KEENAN: Sure, or the predecessor department. Your submission says July 2010.

Ms Moss : That is about when the department was set up.

CHAIR: Thank you. We actually have a lot more questions but no time. We will submit to you a fair few questions on notice and we would appreciate your assistance in getting them back to the committee as soon as possible. Thank you for your submission and your presentation to the committee today.

Ms Moss : Chair, I will be on island when you are holding your hearing there and if I could assist at that stage I would be happy to.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for that offer.

Proceedings suspended 12:24 to 13:02