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Thursday, 8 March 1984
Page: 630


Senator GEORGES —I present the 223rd report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts on the Committee's inquiry into HMAS Tobruk.

Ordered that the report be printed.


Senator GEORGES —by leave-This report details the findings of the Committee's inquiry into the amphibious heavy lift ship-HMAS Tobruk-project of the Department of Defence. The inquiry was commenced following the Auditor-General's critical report on the HMAS Tobruk project in March 1982. Initially the Committee planned to report on the findings of this inquiry in conjunction with its findings on other references from the Auditor-General's March 1982 report. However, because of the magnitude and the seriousness of the problems associated with the project the Committee decided to issue a separate report on the matter. Among the issues reported on by the Committee are: HMAS Tobruk's excess weight; the Defence Department's poor quality assurance and grossly inadequate on-site representation at the shipyard; Tobruk's inoperable davit hoist system for its landing craft; several alleged major design faults including a lack of watertight integrity following damage; major deficiencies in the Defence Department's overall approach to project management; and the history of design related problems with HMAS Tobruk's air conditioning system; the engine control system; the deck mounding of the ship's forward cranes; the ship's excessive vibration; its underdesigned auxiliary boilers; the ship's dangerous sewerage system; and its inadequate kit lockers.

The Committee is most concerned about the variety of serious problems that were revealed during the course of the inquiry. The Committee questions the failure of the Department of Defence to rectify technical problems which emerged during the HMAS Tobruk project. The Committee would not have expected the Department to have mismanaged the acquisition of a major piece of equipment. During this inquiry the Committee found that many highly significant events and documents were not readily brought to the attention of the Committee by the Department. Rather, their existence was revealed only after prolonged investigation and probing inquiry by the Committee. The Committee was not satisfied with this aspect of the Department's conduct for it believed that a committee of the Australian Parliament should be given a full and frank account of all relevant events and documents pertinent to the matter under consideration. It is not a matter of receiving information on a need to know basis. It is for the Committee only to decide what material is relevant.

I wish to comment further on two matters raised in the report. First, during the course of the Tobruk inquiry the Committee learnt of the tragic death of Naval Reserve cadet Kenneth Dax and the critical findings of the subsequent board of inquiry and the Department's review of that board of inquiry. While the Department is to be congratulated for the thoroughness of the review of the board of inquiry report it is, at the same time, to be severely censured for the deficiencies and mismanagement reported on by the review. The Committee is concerned at the way the Department handled the Dax family's request for information and compensation following the tragic death of their son Kenneth. The Committee has carefully considered this issue and concludes that the amount of $3,550 is not an adequate amount to compensate for the death of a 14-year-old naval cadet and the subsequent distress to his family. The Committee recommends that the matter should be looked at again and a more adequate amount determined.

Secondly, during the course of the inquiry a question on HMAS Tobruk's watertight integrity following damage was raised. The Committee heard evidence on this serious matter from a variety of sources at both public and in camera hearings and carefully considered this allegation. The Committee remains doubtful about HMAS Tobruk's watertight integrity in certain circumstances. In this report the Committee makes 33 recommendations for action by the Defence Department. Of these I wish to highlight one recommendation which states:

That rectification of HMAS Tobruk's many serious technical problems should be carried out in advance of the scheduled refit. In the meantime consideration should be given to the operation of the ship to ensure its safety.

The Committee wishes to emphasise that it does not question the concept of, or the need for, a ship such as HMAS Tobruk. Clearly, the existence and operation of a heavy lift ship like HMAS Tobruk is of benefit to the Australian defence forces and the Australian community.

Similarly, the Committee in reporting on the findings of this inquiry does not question the role of the Australian shipbuilding industry in defence projects. The Committee emphasises that it does not wish to prejudice shipbuilding in Australia. It recognises the valuable contribution to the Australian economy made by Australian shipbuilding companies and their employees, and welcomes the development of this industry. The Committee believes that the recommendations of this inquiry will go some way towards improving overall project management and administration in the Department. However, there still remains a need for project management in the Department of Defence and its related organisations to be further improved substantially. As honourable senators will be aware, the Committee will be undertaking a detailed and comprehensive examination into the Defence Department's overall project management and administration this year. With this in mind the Committee requests that the response to this report be available to the Committee on or before 1 September 1984. In commending the report to honourable senators I will add some further comments.

I cannot put the report down without giving credit to the secretariat of the Committee and those who have worked on this long inquiry for the manner in which they produced the report to enable it to be tabled this week. I wish also to put on record my personal admiration for the efforts of Mrs Dax, the mother of Kenneth Dax, the 14-year-old who died in such unfortunate circumstances. Since 1981 Mrs Dax has persisted with great courage in bringing to the public's attention and to the attention of this Parliament the circumstances which led to her son's death. Unfortunately it is not to the credit of the Department of Defence or in fact those who represent the Department in this Parliament to have revealed the manner in which that family was treated.

Mrs Dax had to persist against great odds in order to get the information concerning the circumstances of the death. Mrs Dax with great effort obtained co -operation from the Department in her family's time of need. It does not reflect any credit on those concerned when one looks at the family's treatment. As the report reveals, the death of the lad was the result of an unfortunate series of events, design faults, misjudgment and errors. It is a death that could have and should have been avoided. However, the death having occurred, surely the Department could have responded as it should respond to the families of all Service personnel when something tragic occurs. If this case is any example of how the Service departments respond to the death of one of their number, of course, as the Committee report recommends, such responses will have to be substantially altered and corrected.

One finds it hard to accept that Mrs Dax should have had so much difficulty. One finds it hard to accept that she was not given consideration. One can talk about compensation but compensation is secondary. I do not think the Dax family or Mrs Dax are concerned about money. There is really no amount that would compensate them for the tragedy. Nevertheless, it is my belief that they seek to create a precedent in this area. It is for others to determine how the compensation can be increased. Many simple things should have been done in an understanding of the trauma which that family, in particular the parents, suffered. The report gives the whole chronology of the exchange of correspondence between that family and the Department over two years. One incident seems to indicate the lack of sensitivity of the Department. When the lad suffered the accident he was rescued by one of his fellow cadets who went into the head or the toilet area and brought the boy out at great risk to himself. The Dax family recommended an award for bravery. The Department accepted that and made an award for bravery to the cadet concerned, but it failed to advise the Dax family until after the award had been presented. That seems to me to demonstrate such a lack of sensitivity, understanding and co- operation. Even when the Department was trying to do the right thing it failed to carry out the details.

In the report I would say that we have hammered the Department rather remorselessly because, in a way, our approach may have been affected by the tragedy of Kenneth Dax and our belief that those errors should not have occurred . We felt that that toilet should not have become a trap and that those who altered the design of the system should have known, as the report shows, that certain consequences would flow from that change in design. They should have been aware, if they were changing the design, that the seal in the toilet head was only 17 millimetres of water, not 35 millimetres as in a domestic toilet. They should have known that the seal was less than that, and that when considering the pressures that built up there was not sufficient seal to counter those pressures. They were simple, ordinary problems of design that should have been recognised. Unfortunately, throughout the whole project there appear errors of this type.

Having gone through this whole exercise, I feel that the Department of Defence will respond not only because of the criticisms of this report but also because of its own review. The report of the inquiry by the board of review into the death of Kenneth Dax was the document upon which the Committee depended greatly to expose the serious problems of the Tobruk. There is the expertise within the Department to counter these problems and to solve them. I hope that as a result of this report that will happen.

I have spoken for longer than I intended, but I think it is necessary to indicate to the Parliament the serious deficiencies which occurred during the construction of Tobruk and subsequent to its commissioning. The matter is serious and ensuring understanding of that seriousness has been very necessary.