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Incident of 15 December 2010

BARRETT, Rear Admiral Timothy William, Commander, Border Protection Command, Australian Customs and Border Protection Service

BROWN, Air Commodore James Michael, Commander, Surveillance and Response Group, Australian Defence Force

COLVIN, Mr Andrew, Deputy Commissioner Operations, Australian Federal Police

GRANT, Mrs Marion, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Australian Customs and Border Protection Service

HURLEY, Lieutenant General David, Vice Chief, Australian Defence Force

KELLEY, Ms Roxanne, Acting Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Australian Customs and Border Protection Service

PERRY, Mr Nigel Antony, National Director, Maritime Operations Support Division, Australian Border Protection Service

[16:16]

CHAIR: I have a number of questions for the AFP. One of the submitters—CARAD, Coalition for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees—expressed some concern that one survivor was interviewed over 12 hours by the AFP. I was wondering if that occurred and, if so, what was the purpose of a 12-hour interview?

Mr Colvin : As I said in my opening statement, certainly the interviewing of any victim in a circumstance like this is never a straightforward and easy process. After I saw the CARAD submission, I obviously made inquiries into the claim of 12 hours. I assure the committee that we did not interview these people for 12 hours. What I understand occurred with a number of people over a number of days was witnesses who were prepared to talk to us for a start were brought into our police headquarters and over a lengthy period we gave them the opportunity to speak to us, to provide statements. Certainly it was not a 12-hour interrogation, if you like. It was a 12-hour period where they were afforded all sorts of breaks, opportunities to stop talking to us and do something else. Obviously they were given food in terms of their religious tolerances. All of it was done in a very controlled manner in terms of ensuring their medical condition and their mental state. As I said in my introductory comments, at all points they were voluntary. We kept checking the voluntary nature, as we did with all the witnesses, not just the ones referred to in the submission, and we checked they were happy to continue. In any instance where anyone gave us the slightest inclination that it was too traumatic or too stressful we stopped the process. That is why for some people it took two, three or four days to get the information.

As I said, sometimes this is a thankless task from the police because we need to identify bodies and establish as quickly as we can what happened. I assure the committee that we did it in the absolutely most sensitive manner that we could. We are as concerned and distressed to see inferences that we did not do that. I checked into, as I said, those ones in particular and at no point did that couple who tragically lost one of their children say that they wanted us to stop the process. In fact, someone else spoke to the supervisor who oversighted it. While they were distressed, absolutely, they were happy to continue. We gave them as many breaks and opportunities to reflect on the tragedy as they needed. So this concerns me. I am sure that, in making that submission, CARAD were relaying comments that were made to them. I am not disputing that in any way at all. I guess I am just saying to the committee that the AFP are very conscious of this and we did everything as sensitively as we possibly could.

CHAIR: How soon after the rescue did the interviewing of survivors commence?

Mr Colvin : Those ones in particular were survivors who went to Perth. It was over an extended period of many days. The ones who we could talk to straight away—those who seemed to be in a mental and physical state to talk to us—we prioritised. Others, for a range of reasons through trauma as well as injury, we were not able to talk to straight away. If you think about the process, it is everything from trying to get initial immediate information about what occurred through to formally documenting a statement from people. Right up front we were talking to anybody who could help us pin together what had actually occurred.

CHAIR: Were all survivors interviewed?

Mr Colvin : I will correct the record if this is not the case, but yes. I would be extremely surprised if we did not talk to everyone several times.

CHAIR: Including children?

Mr Colvin : It depends on what you mean by 'children'. A 16- or 17-year-old could probably give us some information that was useful. There were infants and children at three, four and five years of age. I cannot be sure that we interviewed them. If we did, our normal practice is that it is done with family members or with responsible adults who again could help us work through that process.

CHAIR: Your submission indicates that you work closely with a number of other agencies. What is your view now in hindsight about the effectiveness of the Federal Police's communications with Customs, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the WA Police and the Navy.

Mr Colvin : In the response itself?

CHAIR: Yes.

Mr Colvin : We have debriefed, as we always do in a critical incident. I do not think I have ever been involved in a postoperational assessment or debrief that has not told us something that we can do differently. Communication is nearly always at the heart of that. We feel that there is always room for improvement, particularly in relation to how we communicated on the island. Having said that, nothing came out of that we believe would have made any material difference. We were actually quite pleased with the communication. It is an ongoing thing. This was not the only incident where we are communicating with our colleagues; it is a constant process. We were quite satisfied with the levels of communication. There are always things that you can do differently and better, but none of that was material to the actions on the day.

CHAIR: I would like a response from each agency to this next question. The committee is looking at the after incident support for not only survivors but also those involved in the rescue and the effort. I would like to know what each agency did to provide counselling or support post the tragedy.

Mr Colvin : Do you mean for our members?

CHAIR: Yes, for your members.

Mr Colvin : The initially deployed surge onto the island to help us deal with it included a police welfare officer. Really we leave it to welfare officers to work out how they work, but there could be a range of things from the informal—being around our officers to see how they are coping—through to formal interviews. We had that welfare officer on the island at the time who assessed the AFP members. I will defer to Assistant Commissioner Prendergast, who is here as well, if I am not right on this. We also made our welfare officer available to the community on Christmas Island. We then have a follow up program every three to six months where we talk to our people. I do not mind saying for the committee's record that our officers were traumatised. We do have ongoing issues. We are keeping an eye on officers to make sure we think they are fit and capable to respond to another situation if they have to.

Mrs Grant : In the submission we lodged with you we provided quite some detail about dates and what had happened with counselling of our people who had been involved both on the island and on the ACV Triton. I will not take time to go through those dates, but I just want to say that we have had an ongoing program following those very intensive interventions early on. All staff involved in the tragedy have been provided support. We have done some follow-up surveying to see how people are going. As recently as the last two weeks at the coronial inquiry in Western Australia we have had the counsellor who did the initial counselling onsite for our witnesses appearing before that inquiry in case it brought back stressful times for them. Rear Admiral Barrett and I both had to give evidence at that inquiry and the counsellor came and made herself available in the event that we felt we needed to talk with her as well. It is happening and ongoing and will be maintained for as long as any of our officers need that professional assistance.

Lt Gen. Hurley : There is a two-part answer to this. As I have said before, we supply the asset, the patrol boat, to Customs. Rear Admiral Barrett can talk about what he initiated immediately around the incident and I will talk about what Defence has done on the follow through.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Rear Adm. Barrett : The Customs vessel Triton was under my operational control at the time; Customs managed that. From the Navy vessel HMAS Pirie initially I made calls to the commanding officer on a regular basis from right after the incident for the next couple of days. We then initiated counselling that flew to the island, who then sailed back with Piriethere were two of them—so they could talk to all members of the crew during the journey back. Pirie stayed at the island for a number of days after the event, firstly, because of the need to do search and rescue and, secondly, so we could get a replacement vessel out there and relieve her of her duty. The follow on then was captured through Navy, who took ownership of the vessel once she returned to Darwin. There was some ongoing maintenance of counselling for crew after that.

Lt Gen. Hurley : Which included in particular our three-month follow-up after the event, similar to what we do when a person goes on deployment. We bring them back in and do postoperational psychology screening. I can report that all members are in a fit and whole state, are fit for sea duty and are back at work. One member from the ship's company has discharged but that was a process that had started before the incident and was followed through later on.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator FIELDING: I have a question with regard to the report from the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. A fair bit of time and effort went on establishing whether the sighted vessel in actual fact was SIEV221. There was concern it may have been SIEV220, which arrived the previous day. There seemed to be a fair bit of discussion from what I can see in the report about that. Did that delay anything with regard to responding? The first sighting was at 5.40 and it took until 6.55 to resolve the question: was the sighting SIEV220 and not SIEV221?

Rear Adm. Barrett : There are two different issues at play there. Firstly, by my reading of the report, there was a 13-minute difference from 5.47 after it had been reported. Initially a call was made that it was thought that 221 may have been the hulk of 220, which had been boarded the day before. Part of it was around where the report was being made from. They were trying to determine where the observer of that vessel was placed to try to determine whether they had seen the previous vessel. In that process of making calls one call went to a message bank between the operations centre and the customs officer on the island. They waited a period of time and then called back. They eventually got that cleared up and then advised that the boat was a new contact of interest—in fact, SIEV221. That accounted for about 13 minutes. There was another series of calls that were made from the Maritime Security Operations Centre, which works in my headquarters up here in Canberra. A series of 000 phone calls initially indicated that we believed there may have been a vessel in distress somewhere between Christmas Island and Ashmore Island and there was the statement that the vessel was on fire. So staff within the AMSOC, the Maritime Security Operations Centre, I think made prudent calls to try to confirm whether we had a second vessel or whether it was all about 221. As a consequence of their efforts we diverted aircraft to search around Ashmore Island to verify the information that had been provided. So they are two separate issues I believe. I do not believe the 000 calls had any material effect on or changed the other actions that were occurring. They were just prudent measures to determine whether the information we had was correct.

Senator FIELDING: Thanks for clarifying that.

Mr CHAMPION: This might already be in evidence somewhere. Obviously SIEV221 was unprepared for the journey. At the first sighting it was five to 600 metres from the shore. Did they try to approach Rocky Point? Were they trying to land? Is it undetermined—

Rear Adm. Barrett : Mr Chairman, I think that is probably a call for those involved on the boat and will probably come out in the coronial inquiry. The evidence at the moment suggests that, at the initial sighting made by the custom's officer at 5.40, the vessel was some distance from shore, was underway and had steerage. So it was making its own way. As I understand the evidence that has been provided through the coronial inquest, at some stage it made passage towards the shore and then as a consequence of being in that rough surf zone, lost power for whatever reason and then at that point was washed onto the rocks. At that point I think the evidence from the CO Pirie was that little could be done. But at the time of first sighting it was underway and it had power.

Mr CHAMPION: Maybe I will leave that to the coronial inquiry.

Mr Colvin : Chair, that is a matter that the coroner will make his own finding on one way or the other. We just need to be a little bit careful with that.

Rear Adm. Barrett : Can I caveat what I just said around those points. Thank you for that.

Mr CHAMPION: Just in regards to the rigid hull inflatable boats—and I have heard you all talking about the heroism of our personnel and I would like to pay tribute to them—the evidence says that they were operating at or above the recommended operational procedure. How close were we to a situation where it was not prudent to put those rigid boats into the sea? From the vision it seems to have been an extraordinary situation. It is always hard to second-guess the decisions made by the officers who were in command at the time. There were so many people on Rocky Point and there were people in these boats in the water. It seems to me that we were very lucky that there was not further loss of life.

Mrs Grant : We agree with you entirely. We heard evidence from a colleague from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority earlier this week about when it is a safety of life at sea situation that it is up to the commanding officer of the vessel—so the RHIB and tender drivers—to make the decision whether they think to save lives they can safely operate their equipment. There is no obligation on them to risk their own lives. So in the circumstances the commanding officer of the Pirie and the Triton made an assessment that we should launch those tenders. Essentially it came down to whether the drivers of those small vessels were prepared to take that risk. They all, in the circumstances, attempted it and we are very grateful that 41 lives were saved due to their actions. When we look at that footage as the officials with a duty of care to those officers, we are very thankful that no Commonwealth officers lost their lives during this rescue process. Our colleague from AMSA was basically saying the restrictions and the operating limitations on the vessels are sort of set aside in safety of life at sea situations and the commanding officer makes the decision whether they can attempt a rescue or otherwise.

Mr CHAMPION: Obviously it was an emotive situation because would be distressing to see people so close to the rocks in that situation. I am wondering what procedures there are around that decision. It would obviously have been a very difficult decision not to do what was done. I am trying to find out what safeguards there are. It is a difficult question I know, but it seems to me it has to be asked.

Rear Adm. Barrett : It is. It is in part, certainly from the Navy vessel, the commanding officer or the commanding officers we place with experience who make that judgment. In 35 years of the Navy I have never witnessed a shipwreck—certainly nothing of that nature. It was unprecedented in this area and I think it would be to many of our COs, but the fact is they are experienced mariners and they have to make those calls. Their judgments are around their knowledge of the crew, their knowledge of the capability of their boat handlers and their knowledge of the risks that will flow and the benefits in making a decision that may put some of their own people at a heightened level of risk in trying to save other lives.

Senator FIELDING: I think the efforts they went to, from what I could see, were absolutely heroic. Those conditions were horrific. That should be passed back to the officers. That was absolutely life saving for a lot of people. They are heroes.

CHAIR: I am sure the committee will have a fair bit to say about that in its final report. I concur with those comments. There is still the question that you have taken on notice, Mrs Grant, about the internal review attachments. We can have some dialogue with the committee and see where we land on that issue. You are always welcome, after considering what has been said today and the lengthy time we had in camera, to make another written supplementary submission to complete your evidence. I am also happy to give you an opportunity now to make extra comments if you wish to take up that opportunity. We do have a lot of questions on notice which really go to covering off some of the evidence that has been given to us—some in camera and some public. We really did not have an opportunity to cover all the issues we would have liked to in this period of time. We will get those questions to you as soon as possible. I am happy to hand over to you if you wish to take up the opportunity.

Mrs Grant : I do not have anything further to say.

Mr Colvin : I want to thank the committee for the opportunity. Chair, you did ask me about the interviewing of children. I have confirmed that we commenced interviews more generally on the 16th and 17th, so almost immediately after, and in consultation with the Western Australia Police, who had the lead in collecting information for the Western Australian coroner, we arrived at the decision that we would not interview anyone under 17 years of age. We felt it was too traumatic. I thank the committee. We stand ready to provide whatever information we can.

CHAIR: I thank you very much for your submissions to this inquiry and for the evidence that you have presented to the committee today.

Committee adjourned at 16 : 39