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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26279

Senator O'BRIEN (9:56 AM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I want to make a few remarks on the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee report into AusSAR's role in the search for the Margaret J. This is yet another unanimous report of this committee, and I think the fact that so many reports of this committee have been unanimous indicates how well this committee has worked over the life of this parliament. I want to thank the staff for the good work they have put in on what has been a very difficult and, at times, emotional matter.

The Margaret J was a Tasmanian fishing vessel that went missing in bad weather in April 2001. It had three men aboard—Mr Ronald Hill, Mr Robert Kirkpatrick and Mr Kimm Giles. Tragically, all three lost their lives. The national search and rescue agency, AusSAR, was made aware of the missing boat soon after its failure to return to port and later became involved in the search operation. AusSAR's role quickly became a matter of public controversy. For many Tasmanians, the incident rekindled memories of AusSAR's role in the 1995 search for the Red Baron, a fishing vessel.

I moved for the establishment of the committee inquiry to examine AusSAR's performance in June 2001. I did so in the face of vociferous criticism from the minister responsible for AusSAR, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Anderson. Mr Anderson did not understand why a committee of the Senate might examine the performance of the national search and rescue agency in the failed search for three missing Tasmanian fishermen. Thankfully, the committee did not share the minister's desire to shield AusSAR from the sort of scrutiny Australians expect their parliament to provide.

I know that the participants in an online forum following a Four Corners program about the search for the Margaret J welcomed the committee's work. I know the people of Tasmania thought it fit and proper that the parliament should examine the performance of AusSAR in the failed search. The committee never sought to duplicate the work of the state coroner who conducted the inquest into the deaths of the three men aboard the Margaret J. We acceded to a request from Tasmanian authorities to delay public hearings until the conclusion of the coronial inquiry. The report has been delayed to minimise the creation of difficulties for any legal proceedings arising from the failed search. This report contains a sober review of the evidence presented to the inquest into the deaths of the crew, the coroner's subsequent findings, and the submissions and oral evidence received during the course of the committee's inquiry. The committee have made some considered findings about the timing of AusSAR's assumption of responsibility for search coordination.

The committee notes that the first effective request for transfer of responsibility was made by Tasmania Police on 15 April 2001—more than two weeks before AusSAR ultimately accepted responsibility for search coordination. And despite telling Tasmania Police in mid-April that it was not feasible to search for the missing men, a much delayed and restricted search on 30 April did happen to find the boat's life raft and it also led to the recovery of the bodies of two crew members. On this matter, the committee found:

The success of the restricted search activity on 30 April 2001 leaves the committee unwilling to accept that earlier similarly targeted search activity would not have yielded a similar result.

The committee noted the coroner's findings on the estimated time of death of the three men—that is, the coroner found the men had died before the missing boat was reported to Tasmania Police on 13 April 2001. The committee also notes expert evidence to the coronial inquiry, recounted in the coroner's report, estimating Mr Hill's time of death as being between 9 April and 16 April and Mr Giles's death as being between 16 April and 27 April 2001. A local marine expert, Mr Jim Hooper, gave evidence to the committee and was adamant the men would have lived beyond 11 April 2001 based on his technical and local knowledge.

One of the terms of reference of the inquiry was the effectiveness of communication between AusSAR and Tasmania Police. The report finds that AusSAR thwarted the transfer of responsibility from state search and rescue and notes deficiencies in information recording procedures and mishandling of important information. The transcripts of relevant calls to AusSAR were received into evidence by the committee. I want to refer to extracts from those transcripts to highlight my concern about aspects of AusSAR's handling of this matter and to support the committee's view that the agency can do better. The extracts relate to AusSAR's involvement near the beginning and the end of the search for the Margaret J. I will not name the people involved because I do not want to highlight individual lapses. Instead, I want to question whether the language is indicative of wider problems in AusSAR's operations, at least at the time the Margaret J went missing. On 15 April 2001, four days after the Margaret J left port and two days after the boat was reported missing, an officer from AusSAR returned a call from Tasmania Police and started the conversation this way:

I'm just looking at this bit of a problem you're creating here.

The coroner was critical of this exchange, and found that the AusSAR officer's manner caused the Tasmanian police officer to back down on a planned request to transfer responsibility for search coordination. On 30 April 2001, Tasmania Police finally determined to seek a formal transfer of search responsibility. The police officer managing the search called AusSAR to make sure he got the request right. He said:

I'm just giving you a call because I'm not exactly sure of the protocol myself. My boss seems to think that we put a phone call through and forward it to you if it's too big for us.

AusSAR replied:

Right. OK. I think for something this size and the political pressure on board we might have to go to the Manager of the Operations Centre here.

Later, after establishing the right fax number, the police officer asked:

How would you prefer me to word/broach the final paragraph ... I mean my OIC seems to think that we've got some protocol where we just actually direct you to do it—

he is talking about the search—

Do I just sort of say it's beyond our resources and can you please?

AusSAR replied:

Yes. Yeah. It is beyond the Tasmanian authorities resources.

The Tasmania Police said `yep'. AusSAR replied:

And I'm not sure myself actually because I've never taken anything over from Tassie Police.

The AusSAR officer found the relevant sections of the National Search and Rescue Manual after what the transcript records as `music playing on hold for almost two minutes'. After agreeing an assertive final paragraph was appropriate, the AusSAR officer said:

But I don't know how far we'll run with it. I don't think we'll run with it at all to be honest.

Later, two AusSAR officers considering the Tasmanian request agreed it would be prudent to review information previously considered. Officer 1 said:

I suppose what I'm trying to get us to do is to take a look at the problem, not necessarily mount a search but look at the problem and then review what was said by [another officer] before. I've got no reason to believe what he said was wrong in any way. Review it and say well we've done all that. We've gone through all of that. We've relooked at the search area. We are even more impressed that it is unrealistic and unreasonable and we don't believe there's any prospect of success or whatever we want to say. OK?

Officer 1 went on to say:

Review all of the information that the police may be able to provide us, which might be absolutely zip. And then taking all of that into account we can then say we've looked at all of this and we are convinced that there is no actual reasons to continue with the search, to reinitiate the search. We have to have some basis for saying no.

Officer 2 agreed, and suggested he should ask the Tasmanian officer with the necessary details to go back to his office and collect the information. Officer 1 said that would not be necessary, advising:

If that takes him two weeks that's his problem.

It may have been a very big problem—not for an off-duty Tasmanian police officer, but for three Tasmanian fishermen missing at sea. I do not want AusSAR officers worrying about the things they were clearly worried about in these circumstances. I do not want them worrying about whether a state jurisdiction is causing them a problem by asking for help. I do not want them worrying about political pressure from above. I do not want them worrying about how to accept responsibility for search coordination because they are inexperienced or have not received adequate training. And I do not want them to worry about reasons for not recommencing a search that may, one day, save someone's life.

When Mr Anderson attacked this committee's inquiry in August and September 2002, I reminded him that he was the minister responsible for AusSAR during the failed search for the Margaret J and that he was responsible for improving AusSAR's performance. I urged him to cease using the deaths of three Tasmanian fishermen to attack the Labor Party and asked him to work with me and the committee to ensure that identified deficiencies in our search and rescue system were rectified. I renew that call today. Instead of instructing his staff to draft an incendiary media statement, I urge him to sit down and actually read this committee's unanimous report. Once he has done that, the minister ought to get to work implementing its recommendations.

Question agreed to.