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Thursday, 22 November 1973
Page: 3692


Mr CHARLES JONES (Newcastle) (Minister for Transport and Minister for Civil Aviation) - I am pleased to note that the honourable member for Mackellar (Mr Wentworth) does not intend to press his motion, so I assume that it will lapse after I resume my seat. The honourable member referred to the life raft and to the fact that it had an orange canopy which was about 12 feet in diameter. I should like him to understand that the orange canopy was put on the life raft deliberately because orange is the colour that is accepted internationally as being the colour most easily seen at sea. So, for that reason orange is the colour which is used in these circumstances.

The honourable member for Mackellar asked what the defence authorities were doing. I do not want to canvass the matters which the marine court of inquiry will be investigating, but as far as I am concerned this will be one of the subjects into which the inquiry will be entitled to inquire. Although I do not have the Press cuttings with me at the moment, I know from my own interest in the sinking of the 'Noongah' that in his findings on that occasion Mr Justice Spicer was most critical of the Royal Australian Air Force for the manner in which it went about searching for survivors from the 'Noongah'. I do not think that we will escape any criticism if this inquiry into the sinking of the 'Blythe Star' finds that criticism is necessary. Mr Justice Dunphy who is conducting the inquiry will level criticism at any person, organisation or department which he considers should be criticised in relation to the search for the survivors of the Blythe Star'. The honourable member for Mackellar referred to this matter, and as far as I am concerned, if we were at fault, let the marine court of inquiry bring out the facts.

I should like to draw attention to one other factor. The Tasmanian Transport Commission sent up a plane before the RAAF was called in, and that plane did not find the survivors. Even after the Department of Transport had called off the search by service aircraft after almost a week's operation, we still had a helicopter searching the coast. I believe that the Tasmanian Transport Commission likewise had a light aircraft searching the coast, but still no one picked up the survivors. The fact that the survivors got literally within hailing distance of a tourist hotel without being detected is one of the questions to which the court of inquiry will have to find the answers. I certainly have not got the answer to it. This is one of the answers which I hope will come out of the inquiry.

I appreciate the fact that the honourable member for Moreton (Mr Killen) said that we acted promptly, and I do not think that in any circumstances anyone can level any criticism at what we have done. The survivors of the Blythe Star' were found on 24 October. I immediately, even before the honourable member for Mackellar gave notice of his notice of motion, appointed Captain Taylor to conduct a preliminary inquiry. He reported to me confidentially yesterday. If I may, I will draw to the attention of honourable members the difference between the way in which I have acted in this matter and what took place in respect of previous tragedies like this. On 2 November, some 7 days after the survivors were found, I invited the Chief Justice to appoint a judge to conduct the Court of Marine Inquiry which I had directed should take place.


Mr Street - Will the report to you be made public?


Mr CHARLES JONES - Captain Taylor's report to me will be made available to the counsel assisting the judge. As far as I am concerned, it is a confidential report to me. Captain Taylor will make the full report available to the counsel.


Mr Street - But not here?


Mr CHARLES JONES - No, not at this stage. This is a procedure which the courts follow and I will not interfere in any way whatsoever with the procedures that this court wants to follow.


Mr Killen - When will the judge start his inquiry?


Mr CHARLES JONES - The inquiry will commence, I believe, on 3 December. .Mr Justice Spicer was originally to conduct the inquiry but he has informed me that due to ill health he will not be available until February. I was informed of this last Friday. My reply was that whoever was to conduct the inquiry was a decision for him, not for me. I was asked whether I wanted to make a recommendation. I said: 'No, as far as I am concerned Mr Justice Spicer, the Chief Justice, will make the selection of who would conduct the inquiry'. That is the position at the moment in regard to the inquiry.

As I have said, I am appreciative of what the Opposition has said about my actions. I inform honourable members that on 3 December voluntary position reporting and voyage plan procedures will be brought into operation. The Marine Operations Centre will be conducting this. Shipping companies will be invited - we cannot at this stage direct them to do so - to lodge their voyage plan and we will invite them to have their vessels report their positions regularly so that we will know where a ship is at a particular time. In the case of the 'Blythe Star', if the captain had reported his position at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., the times at which I believe he was expected to report, then we would have known within 12 hours of the last known position of the vessel that it was somewhere between a little east of the position where it sank and the next position at which the captain was to have reported. I draw the attention of honourable members to the fact that as late as Sunday afternoon the owners of the vessel were not concerned about its non-arrival, but they were annoyed that it had not arrived on time and that the captain had not altered his estimated time of arrival. In my opinion this is one of the major contributing factors to the reason the survivors were not found at an earlier hour.

In relation to voyage plan and position reporting, these procedures will apply to Australian ships and also to foreign trading ships. The legislation is in the process of being drafted so that we will be able to impose on shipping companies a legal requirement that before a ship leaves a port it shall report to the Marine Operations Centre setting out the route that it will follow. Vessels will also be required to report their positions periodically. To show that this is under way, I inform honourable members that additional staff will be required. We have already approached the Public Service Board seeking approval for the appointment of 3 professional assistant co-ordinators and 7 clerical assistants. Advertisements will appear in next Saturday's newspapers for the 3 assistant co-ordinators. Advertisements for the positions of clerical assistants appeared in last Saturday's newspapers. So on this matter the Government has acted promptly, as the Opposition has said. I believe that we have done everything possible to make sure that another 'Blythe Star' incident does not occur.

We can all refer to what has happened in the past, but the fact is that the Navigation Act should have been reviewed long ago. These new procedures should have been written into it. I believe that there was opposition from the industry to the introduction of voyage plans and position reporting, probably because one company did not want another company to know where its vessels were, what they were doing and how they were progressing. But we are not concerned with that for the future. Our attention has been drawn to a serious state of affairs and we will rectify it as early as we can. As the honourable member for Mackellar intends to withdraw his motion, I do not propose to deal with it any further. I appreciate his bringing it forward. It has enabled him to put his point of view. It has also enabled other people to put their points of view.

The honourable member referred to radar reflectors. This is a matter which does concern the international maritime world. Maritime bodies are working on it. They are trying to devise a system even to the extent that on life rafts reflectors will be woven into the canopy to create the necessary reflection for radar detection. It would appear that internationally everything that can be done is being done to ensure that incidents such as the sinking of the 'Blythe Star' do not occur in the future, and also to ensure that life rafts do reflect radar. I know that one newspaper ran an article on a piece of equipment which Hawker de Havilland Aust. Pty Ltd has.


Mr Street - An instrument which uses infra-red rays.


Mr CHARLES JONES - That is right. That company suddenly discovered it had this equipment a month after the 'Blythe Star' incident. I was not aware of its existence. If we had been known of it we could have used it. If we had that sort of equipment we certainly would have used it.







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