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Thursday, 22 November 1973
Page: 3689

Mr WENTWORTH (Mackellar) - I move:

1.   That a Select Committee of this House be appointed to inquire into:

(a)   the reasons why the raft with the survivors of the 'Blythe Star' was not located more promptly, and

(b)   possible measures to facilitate the prompt location of boats or rafts in difficulties at sea.

2.   That the Committee consist of the mover and seconder, together with 3 members to be nominated by the Prime Minister and to be notified in writing to the Speaker.

3.   That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records, to move from place to place and to sit during any recess or adjournment of the Parliament.

4.   That the Committee report to this House not later than 30 November 1973.

I think it was on 25 October last that the survivors from the 'Blythe Star' were located and rescued even though the ship had sunk some 12 days previously. As soon as the news of that came, I gave notice in the House that I would move a motion in the above terms. I think it is almost a month since I moved that motion. Obviously 2 questions which exercise the minds of the public should exercise the minds of honourable members of this House in regard to this incident. The first is: Why did the 'Blythe Star' sink? The second is: Why were the survivors not found and what can be done to help in such other cases in the future?

The first of those questions is not included in the terms of my motion. I am not offering any opinion as to why the 'Blythe Star' sank. That is a matter on which I have no views except that it is inexplicable on our present knowledge. It was a tragic event and it is important that that question should be resolved. But my mind is not directed to that aspect in the slightest. I am asking why the raft was not found and what can be done to facilitate the search for such rafts in the future. Although we all hope that such sinkings will not occur in the future we know that in the nature of things they may.

I briefly recall to the minds of honourable members - although they might not require such recalling - that the men on board the Blythe Star' launched from the vessel one of the survival rafts which I think was 12 foot in diameter with a fluorescent orange canopy. It was safely launched and it drifted from the position where the vessel should have been at the time it sank, past a lighthouse on Moat.suyker Island, across the mouth of the Derwent River, .past fishing boats, within a stone's throw of a lighthouse on the south of the Tamanian peninsula and, finally, after passing within the sight of a tourist hotel, was beached in an inhospitable cove where there was further loss and tragedy because of the difficulty of making contact with civilisation even after the raft had come ashore. This is an incredible story because there was mounted a large and expensive search with all the technical facilities at our command. Yet this raft, starting from the most probable point where the vessel would have sunk, passing by lighthouses and coast watchers, through fishing vessels, near other vessels, across the mouth of the Derwent River that runs into Hobart, past another lighthouse within a few hundred yards, and within sighting distance of a tourist hotel, still was not located and was given up for lost. I think the House will agree with me that this is a most extraordinary chain of events.

Mr James - Incredible.

Mr WENTWORTH - The honourable member says 'incredible'. I find it almost impossible to believe what has occurred, yet it did occur. The questions we have to ask ourselves are, first, why there was no better information as to the location of the vessel at the time it sank. There is some unsatisfactory evidence - I do not regard it as conclusive - that a 'May Day' distress signal was sent out from the vessel before it sank. I do not know whether that is true or not. It has been reported and it should be investigated. Why was the raft not seen by the lighthouses? Why were the vessels through which it drifted not alerted? Why did they not give it assistance? Apparently some of them were Japanese fishing vessels. Apparently one of them was the 'Mary Holyman', an Australian vessel that passed between the raft and a lighthouse. Although apparently some kind of a flare was sent up, nothing was seen. Most incredible of all, why was the raft not found when the defence forces mounted this very large operation? It was a large operation with 14 planes involved at one time. It cost, I am told, over $250,000 and the equipment involved must have cost very many tens of millions of dollars. As the honourable member for Hunter has said, it is almost incredible.

When questions of that kind are asked surely we should be taking some kind of special measures to find the answers. The questions occur in this order: First, why was there not more notice given and more vigilance from the lighthouses, the vessels and the people in the area? I know that it is hard to spot an object at sea. The raft was 12 feet in diameter and had an orange fluorescent canopy over it - not altogether an inconspicuous object, though the sea is a big .place. Then, how many vessels were round about? There has been talk of fishing vessels. They were not the only vessels. Why, why, why were the defence authorities incapable of finding it? That last question is one that should concern the House because the whole of our defence appreciation is based upon our ability to find objects at sea. If one cancels from the defence appreciation the possibility of finding objects at sea, then the defence plans for Australia might have to be quite significantly revised. This is a question of almost transcending importance. We have been told that a submarine cannot stick up a periscope within 300 miles of Australia without somebody being able to spot it, that radar will find everything. Well, radar did not find this, and we have been told that it could not find it because it was not composed of metal. If this House were to pass a law that every one of our enemies should always use metal in everything it puts up from a submarine I am afraid we could not enforce that law.

If there is that kind of unreality at the base of our defence appreciation, this complete unreality which has been shown up by our enemies or potential enemies, it should be taken notice of by our authorities. The exercise - if one can call it an exercise - is an exercise in reality. When it comes to reality the exercise falls down. This is of tremendous importance and significance. I am not trying to make a case against the Government. I am not even trying to defend what the Opposition may have done when it was in Government. What I am doing is saying that this House has to take some notice of defence realities, irrespective of Party. This aspect does seem to me of tremendous importance.

Leaving that, a side issue perhaps as far as the motion is concerned but perhaps the most important aspect of the whole thing, let me come to practical things. What can we do to prevent a repetition of this incredible series of events? It seems to me that there are 3 things we can consider. The first is better reporting and better vigilance. This concerns the network of radio stations, the possibility of using local fishing boats, even local pleasure boats, as some kind of coast guard. All those kind of things can be considered. Was there sufficient vigilance? Was there slackness and a breakdown on the part of watchers on the ships and of watchers at the lighthouses? We should like to know the answers to those questions.

The second matter is obviously a simple one: A survival raft should have a radar reflector on it. From the accounts we have been told that the crew on this raft used food containers, their tins, and tried to make radar reflectors from them. Obviously if they did that - and I believe they did - those efforts were ineffectual. I have seen statements from responsible officers to the effect that a little bit of tin foil that could have been put over the orange canopy on the raft would have made the raft a radar reflector. That would be a very simple thing. I do not suppose we would be thinking in terms of more than a couple of dollars a raft in regard to that aspect. If there is to be a radar search why not make rafts amenable to radar location? That could be done practically costlessly. It may be that we should be having on rafts heat sensors and infra-red sensors which are available, and perhaps this is some kind of reflection on the technical ability of the defence forces that were doing the search. This was not the kind of thing for which they were searching. The enemy is not incapable of looking for ways and means of outwitting your defence.

Finally, let me say something about a very simple little device called a survival beacon which, I believe, it is obligatory to fit to most aircraft and which, when it is activated, will send out a sound known as a bleep which can be located quite accurately by the radar in a commercial plane from a distance of perhaps more than 100 miles. That bleeper will operate even in bad weather; cloud will not affect it. If a raft were equipped with a survival beacon or bleeper - call it what you like - there would be no difficulty whatsoever in finding a raft. I happen to know something about this device because when I was in Central Australia I was considering carrying a survival beacon myself in case I became lost in the desert. It is quite a simple device and there is no reason at all why every life raft should not, as a matter of course, be equipped with a proper survival beacon. There is no difficulty about it; it is not terribly expensive.

Mr James - One hundred bucks a pop.

Mr WENTWORTH - I was thinking of, perhaps, a couple of thousand of them. The honourable member for Hunter suggests $100 a pop and he might not be far wrong. They would be cheaper if they were bought in bulk and, for the $250,000 which was spent on the fruitless search, the Government could have made certain that no such search in the future would be fruitless. I gave notice of this motion immediately I heard of the incredible series of events. I gave notice of it before the Government appointed its own committee of inquiry. I believe it is a good committee of inquiry headed by Mr Taylor. I have no complaint to make about what the Government has done in that regard. At the time I think there was a good case for the Parliament to hold an inquiry while the evidence was still hot, while all the information could be obtained.

The Press has made that inquiry. It has published the results of the inquiry, and I congratulate it on the work it has done. But its work will be backed up, I am sure, by the inquiry which the Government has instituted, and I do not cavil either at the nature of the inquiry or the personnel appointed to conduct it. I thought that the time when this notice of motion expired was 30 November. Obviously, the motion is out of court now, and I do not intend to press it. What I want to do is to draw the attention of the House to some of the salient points I have raised. I hope that my friend, the honourable member for Moreton (Mr Killen), who is to second this motion, will agree that the motion should not be pressed.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Scholes)Order!Is the motion seconded?

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