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Transcript of joint press conference: Prime Ministers Courtyard, Canberra: 17 March 2008: HMAS Sydney; Kormoran; China visit.

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Prime Minister of Australia


Joint Press Conference with, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel Prime Ministers Courtyard, Canberra

17 March 2008

Subject(s): HMAS Sydney; Kormoran; Tibet; China visit


PM: This is a historic day for all Australians and it’s a sad day for all Australians as we confirm the discovery of HMAS Sydney. Last night the Deputy Chief of Navy Admiral Crane informed the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel that the HMAS Sydney wreck had been found.

I’m advised that the HMAS Sydney was found some 12 nautical miles from the Kormoran. Some 8 nautical miles from the scene of the principal battle site and at a depth of some 2470 metres. I am advised that the hull of the HMAS Sydney based on initial sonar findings is determined to be largely intact.

The Australian Government hopes that the discovery of HMAS Sydney brings some closure to the families of the 645 Australian Defence Force personnel who lost their lives bravely in this naval action in World War II.

The Australian Defence Force have also informed me that they will be using their own communications systems to make sure that the surviving family members of the crew of HMAS Sydney are informed of this discovery as soon as is practically possible.

This will be a hard day for family members associated with the Sydney. This was over 65 years ago. But pain and family loss even at 65 years removed is still pain and very deep pain. So on behalf of the Government I would say to all those members of the families, of the brave members of the crew of the HMAS Sydney, that the Government extends to them our condolences for the loss of these brave young men.

Further I wish to confirm that under the Historic Shipwrecks Act that the Minister for the Environment has informed me that he is in the process of issuing an interim protection declaration in relation to both vessels, that is the German vessel Kormoran and the HMAS Sydney.

Again I would thank the Finding Sydney Foundation and the crew members of the Geosounder together with the Royal Australian Navy for the support that they have provided to the very detailed and complex task which this has involved.

I conclude by saying this, this is a day which begins a process of closure for many families of the crew of the Sydney. It’s also a time for the nation to reflect on the bravery of all of those who gave their lives in defence of their country. In this particularly bloody and brutal naval engagement.

If I could ask Ted Graham now to brief you on the detail of what the Geosounder has found and then turn to the Chief of Navy to add to those remarks before taking any questions.

TED GRAHAM: Thank you very much Prime Minister. In 2001 we established HMAS Sydney Search as a not for profit company run by five volunteer directors to locate HMAS Sydney.

Over the years since then we have raised funds and we have been primarily funded by the Australian, the West Australian and the NSW Governments. We started the search for the Sydney at the end of February. We confirmed we had located the Kormoran last Friday and we confirmed we had located the Sydney as the Prime Minister has just mentioned, yesterday.

So far we are ahead of time and under budget which is a good thing, so we do have some more funds to go ahead and do some photographic work on the hulls.

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Their intention now is that the Geosounder will come back into Geraldton on Thursday or Friday this week. We will then mobilise a deep water remotely operated vehicle which has high resolution cameras on it. We will go out and we will go at this stage to both the sites of the Kormoran and the Sydney and the battle site.

I should just mention that we are going to be working in very deep water with high technology and sometimes things don’t quite go to plan so it might take us a while to get some proper photography back. That will obviously come from the vessel ashore and be distributed by the normal processes.

Prime Minister thank you very much and thank you to our Navy colleagues and you Minister and to our patrons Tim Fischer and Professor Geoffrey Blainey and Rear Admiral David Holthouse. And I would like to thank my fellow Directors Don Pridmore, Glenys McDonald, Bob Trotter and Keith Rowe for their support and help over the years. And also David

Mearns and John Perryman and the team on board the Geosounder.

I would just also like to pass my best wishes to the families of both the Kormoran and the Sydney on this historic day. Prime Minister, thank you.

PM: Thank you, Chief of Navy

CHIEF OF NAVY SHALDERS: Thank you Prime Minister. As has been said this is a very historic day. For 66 years this nation has wondered where the Sydney was and what occurred to it. We’ve uncovered the first part of that mystery. We now know where she is or where she finished.

The next part of the mystery of course is what happened and that will take some time. It will be helped of course by the R.O.V. the Remotely Operated Vehicle, activity which we hope will occur next week. But it will take some time to try and ascertain exactly what happened, that day over 66 years ago.

It is an exciting day as well as an historic day for the Royal Australian Navy. HMAS Sydney has always, there has always been an HMAS Sydney in our Navy, and I suspect there always will be.

The current ship, Sydney, is the fourth in the line and the third of the air warfare destroyers will also be named Sydney. It is an historic name and we have added to the history of that name over the weekend. Thank you.

PM: Good, Happy to take your questions.

JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, considering there haven’t been any photography taken yet of the wreckage, how has it been confirmed that it is the Sydney, considering that it is lying such deep waters?

PM: I’ll turn to the Chief of Navy on that. I have got to say, one of our reasons for spending through the Defence, Minister for Defence, Science and Personnel, and with Navy, last night was to ask, and ask again and to ask again, and to seek confirmation and confirmation and confirmation again, before making this morning’s statement.

It is very important that these things are got right. But I will turn to Chief of Navy, and if necessary, Ted as well.

CHIEF OF NAVY SHALDERS: The Geosounder is fitted with a couple of high resolution imaging sonar’s. These are sonar’s which are towed in a sled, behind the ship, and obviously at great tow length because of the depth of water.

The initial indication of what we though might be the Sydney was taken from a low resolution sonar or one of the systems which does not have such high resolution. In the course of investigating that contact, we had to, the Geosounder, exchanged the system they had down at that time, to put the high resolution sled down.

And by looking at the images which are transmitted back from the sonar, you can ascertain the length, the height and the width of any contacts that you might have. By comparing those dimensions with the designs and drawings that we had, we were able to confirm firstly that the Kormoran was the Kormoran. The bow section of the Kormoran is quite distinct. And then during the course of yesterday afternoon and last evening, we were able to confirm that the second contact was in fact the Sydney.

David Mearns has indicated that there is no doubt that this contact is the Sydney.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

CHIEF OF NAVY SHALDERS: David Mearns, who is our search leader, and has conducted a number of these high resolution runs indicates that there is no doubt that this is the Sydney.

JOURNALIST: Admiral, are you or Mr Graham able to hypothesise from what you have seen so far, what might have actually happened? Has it told you anything new about the battle of the fate of the Sydney?

CHIEF OF NAVY SHALDERS: Not at this stage. It is too early to conduct that sort of hypothesis. What we do know is what we have seen at the site of the battle, with some battle debris. We have the site of the Kormoran and we have the site now of the Sydney. How those three sites interconnect, we will really have to wait until we are able to take some more detailed photographic imagery.

JOURNALIST: Were you surprised that the two ships were so close together?

CHIEF OF NAVY SHALDERS: No, in fact the disposition of the wrecks is as it was reported by the survivors of the Kormoran at the time, surprisingly so.

JOURNALIST: So they were right all along?

CHIEF OF NAVY SHALDERS: It seems so, yes.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

CHIEF OF NAVY SHALDERS: The hull, it is reported as being largely in tact, from the dimensions that we have been able to gain. I am not sure you can draw too many inferences at all from that until we closer to it and are able to have a good look.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Environment Minister’s protection orders. Can you tell us what that would mean if Cabinet (inaudible)

PM: The Environment Minister will be issuing a full statement on this a bit later in day. But I am advised that it provides immediate and early protection of the sites against any unauthorised intrusion. But the provisions of the Historic Shipwrecks Act, come into force as a consequence of that interim order.

It is the protection mechanism which we have available to us under Australian law, through that Act of the Parliament which was enacted in 1976.

JOURNALIST: Are there any plans to raise the wreck eventually?

TED GRAHAM: Thanks Prime Minister. No for a start, they are in very deep water and secondly from my point of view and from the foundation’s point of view, they contain the remains of many people and our view is firmly that they should be left alone.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)

PM: Can I say it is important, and I wanted to have those who are conducting the search to respond to that first, it is very important to understand that this is a tomb. And there are 645 Australian soldiers, Australian Sailors, entombed there and they include within their ranks six members of the Royals Australian Air Force. And I think the good thing about Australians is that we treat our war dead with respect and these war dead will be treated with complete respect.

JOURNALIST: How soon are we likely to see imagery, and (inaudible)

TED GRAHAM: We anticipate we will be out on location, probably around Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. The remotely operated vehicle we will be putting down, transmits back to the vessel and then it is a process of transmitting that photography ashore and then, the way our agreement with the Government works, it comes from the vessel to the R.A.N, and then is distributed there through their systems.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

CHIEF OF NAVY SHALDERS: At this stage we believe that the hull is largely in tact, as we’ve mentioned, and sitting upright on the floor of the ocean. Was there another part to your question?

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) because presumably the ships that rescued the German sailors from their lifeboats would have passed through the area (inaudible)

CHIEF OF NAVY SHALDERS: No, I don’t, but I would say that the only trace of the Sydney, of course, was the life raft which is now in the War Memorial, and a life jacket.

Those two artefacts were found about seven days after the action by one of the search vessels, HMAS Heros. We were searching at that time, seven days after the event, but all that was found from the Sydney was that one carley float, and one life jacket.

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JOURNALIST: Does this have any implication for the identity of the body on Christmas Island (inaudible) that body may have floated to the island (inaudible) from this particular vessel site?

CHIEF OF NAVY SHALDERS: Yes, it does. At this stage we are almost certain that the body at Christmas Island, which is not yet identified, is a crew member from HMAS Sydney, and therefore, the raft that he floated to Christmas Island on was also from the Sydney. The raft of course over there is long gone and we’re still in the process of trying to identify who that sailor might be.

JOURNALIST: Would the Government consider making this some part of a permanent memorial (inaudible)

PM: During the course of the week we intend to, with our friends in Defence and elsewhere, look at how best the brave crew of the Sydney are further commemorated as a consequence of this discovery. And we will make a subsequent announcement on that. Because it’s very important that we also deal with surviving family members and how these things are best done with decency and in a proper way.

The only other thing I’d say, by the way, on your question before is, I’m no naval historian, but some vessels go down with all hands and in quite extraordinary circumstances, and others do not. And, the history of naval engagement is a bit like that.

JOURNALIST: What contact have you had with the Germans over this?

PM: Because the Kormoran, obviously, is a German raider, the Government advised our embassy in Berlin over the course of the weekend to ensure that the German Government would be appropriately informed. And as I understand it, those communications were made furthermore yesterday morning. As an added precaution we advised the German ambassador to Australia of the same.

BONGIORNO: Before you go, the Tibetan protest over the weekend (inaudible)

PM: When it comes to the most recent developments in Tibet and elsewhere in China, our position is that all questions of human rights are important. The Foreign Minister when the Chinese Foreign Minister was in Australia recently raised human rights concerns with his Chinese counterpart.

These most recent developments in Tibet are disturbing and from my point of view, I would call upon the Chinese authorities to exercise restraint.

Australia has always recognised from the beginning Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, but these are significant developments, and therefore have been the subject already of communication diplomatically between our two Governments and I imagine that those communications will continue.

JOURNALIST: And will you raise that directly on your visit to Beijing with the President and Premier?

PM: I think that in most of my discussions with Chinese leaders in the past we have dealt with human rights. I can’t see that changing into the future. And, it is a normal part of our relationship with the Chinese which is to say that on human rights questions we have differences with the Government in Beijing. And, when it comes to these most recent developments in Tibet, we have already made our position clearly known. Thank you very much.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

PM: The normal diplomatic processes apply here, both in Beijing and in Canberra. And, these are serious matters and I take them seriously, and, they will certainly form part of our continued diplomatic communication with the Chinese Government. Thank you.

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