Press Conference with Rear Admiral David Johnston RAN



Customs House, Canberra
9 June 2013

JASON CLARE: I'm now in a position to give you the latest information that we have. Let me stress that this information is subject to change and that further details will be available through the course of today and in the days ahead. A search and rescue is going on right now 74 nautical miles west of Christmas Island. Thirteen bodies have been sighted and the search for survivors continues. That search will continue throughout the course of the day.

Let me take you through the chronology of events that's been briefed to me.

At approximately 5.45 pm Australian Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday, an air force P-3 aircraft detected a vessel 28 nautical miles north-west of Christmas Island. It identified approximately 55 people on the deck of the vessel. Mostly adult men but also a small number of women and children. The vessel was stationary but did not appear to be in distress. The advice to me is that Australian authorities did not receive a distress call from this vessel.

HMAS Warramunga was tasked that evening to intercept the vessel. It arrived at the location where the boat was last spotted at 1.30 am Australian Eastern Standard Time on Thursday morning. It conducted a spiral search of the area out to a radius of 11 nautical miles but could not find the vessel. It then searched the approach corridor to Christmas Island. It continued this search throughout Thursday and Friday. An air force P-3 aircraft also searched the area throughout Thursday and Friday.

At about 3 pm Australian Eastern Standard Time on Friday, the P-3 sighted a submerged hull in the water 65 nautical miles north-west of Christmas Island. Warramunga arrived at this location at about 5 pm. It was not able to locate the hull but it did find debris including pieces of wood and a number of life-jackets. At about 8.45 pm Australian Eastern Standard Time on Friday, the P-3 spotted a body in the water. The Warramunga proceeded to this location but was unable to locate the body.

Two merchant vessels responded to a request for assistance on Friday and headed to the search area. Yesterday at approximately 3 pm a Customs Dash 8 surveillance aircraft sighted up to nine bodies in the water. During subsequent searches by Warramunga, the Customs Dash 8 aircraft and a merchant vessel, a further four bodies were found. The search for survivors as I said continues today. An AMSA Dornier aircraft will be up in the air this morning. That'll be followed by a Customs Dash 8 aircraft and another chartered aircraft. They will also search for survivors today. And they're working with the two merchant vessels. HMAS Warramunga has been re-tasked. Late last night the Federal Police received a call from a vessel in possible need of assistance and Warramunga has been tasked to respond to this information.

At the completion of this search, this will be subject of a full review as is standard practice and I've had that conversation this morning with the chief executive officer of Customs and Border Protection. This is another terrible tragedy, another terrible reminder how dangerous these journeys are and let me take this opportunity to thank the men and women of Border Protection Command for their bravery and for the dangerous work that they do.

We're both happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Minister, you said that there were no calls made to AMSA but have you checked with the West Australian police and other places that they typically call?

DAVID JOHNSTON: All the calls wherever they're received are then transferred to AMSA, so AMSA becomes the competent authority because it is the rescue coordination centre so our advice is that we're not aware of any calls from any source that is associated with this particular vessel.

QUESTION: What about the [indistinct] have they helped or received any calls themselves?

DAVID JOHNSTON: The [indistinct] are certainly aware of the incident. I'm not aware of them receiving any particular information. We do know the [indistinct] are dealing with a number of vessels closer to the Indonesian coastline so they are involved in a number of activities of their own.

QUESTION: Minister, can you just tell us a little bit more about the second boat that you mentioned that HMAS Warramunga has been tasked to?

JASON CLARE: I can only pass on the information that I have at the moment. That the Australian Federal Police received a call for assistance last night. That vessel is approximately 110 nautical miles we understand north of Christmas Island. And Warramunga has been re-tasked to head to that location. The latest briefing to me just before I arrived here was that Warramunga's in that location right now.

QUESTION: You mentioned a review, what will that canvass?

JASON CLARE: Well, as is always the case here I want to make sure that everything that should have been done was done. And that's why in this case I've spoken to the chief executive officer this morning to make sure that we initiate an internal review and that will mean making sure that we talk to all of the Australian Government agencies that are involved in responding to these incidents. Let me make this point as well. As is always the case, it's always open to the West Australian Coroner to conduct their own inquiry into these matters and that'll be a matter for the Coroner to consider in due course.

QUESTION: Is there a case to be made for a high-level review? Last time we had an internal review like this, when there were suggestions in the delay, that, you know, the review found we basically - in favour of the search operations. Is there a case of maybe perhaps an external review, a higher review than you're suggesting?

JASON CLARE: As I said it's always open to the Coroner to conduct their own inquiry. In the one - in the case that you're referring to in June of last year that - it is the case that the West Australian Coroner is conducting their own inquiry and those hearings will take place this month.

QUESTION: Can I ask about the weather conditions and why it is that you - the boat was first seen closer to Christmas Island and yet it seems to have drifted away. What more can you tell us about that?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Weather conditions at the time where the vessel was first detected described as sea-state 3 so that is slight conditions, a wind of around up to 20 knots, swell height perhaps 1-2 metres. Quite favourable conditions. The location in which the debris field has been found is consistent with a drift pattern. So if the vessel had then drifted it would have moved in that westerly direction and that's around where the debris field has been located.

QUESTION: You've been talking about quite a substantial difference there between where it was first seen and where it was eventually found - well, its submerged hull. I mean is that consistent with a - with them going partly powered or is it all drift?

DAVID JOHNSTON: We don't know. It would be consistent with a drift model. So the distance between where it was first seen and where the debris was later identified is about 44 nautical miles. That's around 48 hours time difference so at a drift rate of around a knot also, it's quite feasible that it could've moved that far.

QUESTION: Is there any information about where the boat was coming from? The make-up of the people on it or is it too early to tell that?

JASON CLARE: It is too early to tell. We can only speculate on that at the moment. I'm not going to get into the business of speculating.

QUESTION: Minister, you've done a few of these press conferences now for these sorts of incidents. Are you sick of doing them and is there any way of preventing you from having to continue doing these things?

JASON CLARE: Alex, this is not about me, it's about the people on that boat. This is a search and rescue trying to find people alive today. And that's where my focus is. That's where David's focus is. We want to stop people getting on boats. We want to stop people dying at sea. And this is a terrible tragedy. Our focus is on finding people alive.

QUESTION: But this is another failure for the Australian Parliament is it not? I mean we - you've had a few opportunities to try and stop this sort of thing happen. Is it minority government, hung parliament that's failing the Australian people in this front?

JASON CLARE: Well, Andrew let's make no mistake. The people to blame for people dying at sea are the people who put them on the boat in the first place. Who put them on unseaworthy vessels. I'm not going to get into the politics of this issue. You know my views on this. I've made them before and they've been made very clearly but I'm not going to get into the politics of this while we're still searching for people out at sea.

QUESTION: What's the personal toll in tragedies like this for your staff?

DAVID JOHNSTON: These activities are difficult. I'm very privileged to lead an extraordinary professional group of men and women, both those that are working in the ships and the aircraft and in the supporting headquarters around it.

They do take a toll on us, we are humans, and the human dimensions of these circumstance are very difficult to deal with. But we are very professional, we made sure that in these circumstance that - I'm very conscious of the mental welfare of the people that are under my command, and we'll provide them with all the support - both the ships, the aircraft and the headquarters people to make sure that we can continue to look after them.

QUESTION: Can I ask you, have the remains of the deceased, have they been recovered by the navy? And also, you mentioned [indistinct] was involved in a number of operations, is that involving the [indistinct]?

DAVID JOHNSTON: I'll answer your first question, there've been no bodies recovered at this point. The reason for that is because the focus is on looking for survivors, so the recovery of bodies is complex and time consuming. So all the surface vessels are continuing because it remains possible that there are survivors in the water, that's where their focus is.

The nature of the events you mentioned, I've only got a marginal knowledge of them. So it's possible that some of them may have been dealing with boats that are being used to move people to Australia, but we're not certain.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON: The appropriate authority to make that judgement is the Rescue Coordination Centre. They use medical advice in order to form that judgement. We believe, from their advice, that we're still in the window where survivability is possible, and I'm aware that they will review that during the course of the day in order to make an assessment on how long the search continues for.

QUESTION: What can you tell us about the seaworthiness of boats that have been arriving in recent months? I mean obviously it's a lot of boats that have come, there've all been destroyed once they get to Australia. That means they've got to find new boats. Are the boats that they're using getting worse and worse in condition?

DAVID JOHNSTON: There is a wide range of conditions on these vessels. They're certainly not of a condition where it would pass the safety standards that Australia expects of vessels, in particular for an open ocean passage and the waters between either Christmas Island, or Indonesia or Ashmore Island, are open waters. So they are dangerous waters for people to be moving on, and the majority of the vessels are not sea-worthy for a journey of that nature.

DAVID JOHNSTON: No. There are occasions where we're uncertain of - given the seaworthiness or the lack of it of vessels, breakdowns can occur. So whether they are the consequence of just poor mechanical condition of the vessels, or other intervention is not always clear.

QUESTION: When was the last instance of a boat being deliberately sabotaged that you can remember?

DAVID JOHNSTON: I think over the course of the last month we may have had one that we thought - we were unsure of the circumstances.

QUESTION: When the boat was spotted on Wednesday, can you describe what sort of condition it was reported to be in? So there were no signs of distress at that point, what was seen exactly?

DAVID JOHNSTON: What the aircraft observed was a vessel stationary in the water. There were - people had come out to - the line around the outside of the vessel, they waved at the aircraft. There was no indication from their demeanour that the vessel was in distress.

Similarly the observations of looking at the vessel indicated it was riding well. The sea conditions were reasonable, so that was the basis by which a judgement was formed that there was no immediate concern for the state of the vessel.

QUESTION: Minister if there weren't so many boats in the water, would these guys have time to actually check this boat out a little more thoroughly on Wednesday?

JASON CLARE: Well, you're asking a question about resources. Border Protection Command has available to it today 15 vessels and 10 aircraft. This is not so much an issue of resources as an issue of the dangerousness of people getting on unseaworthy boats and making a journey across open seas.

The point that the commander has just made is these boats aren't seaworthy, when people get on these boats they take their life in their hands. And on too many occasions we're seeing people lose their lives because of it.

QUESTION: The last tragedy like this triggered the Houston Expert Panel Report. Was anything done differently this time around as a consequence of that review process?

JASON CLARE: Well Border Protection Command continues to improve the way in which it works, and it continues to improve the way in which it coordinates better the work it does with other Government agencies, continuing to learn from the work that it does.

But I might ask, Commander, if there're anything else you'd like to add to that?

DAVID JOHNSTON: We routinely review all incidents of this nature to identify what we can learn from them. Over the number of events that have occurred, we have done so. So it is an inherent part of our process to conduct our own examination to understand what, if anything, we might have done differently.

So that is a part of our routine processes. And we have - there have been a number of initiatives that have been used, certainly since the June 12 incident, in particular our relationship with the Maritime Safety Agency, how we coordinate our actions together. We meet with them regularly for these discussions to make sure the two agencies work very cooperatively together.

QUESTION: Minister, is there anything the Government can do differently in the remaining days of Parliament instead of talking about the Malaysia Solution as the only way to break this…?

JASON CLARE: Well I'll just make the point I made to Alex before, today's not the day for politics, and I'm not going to get involved in talking about the politics of this while we've got people that we're searching for out at sea.

Just to expand on the point that David made just a moment ago. For example, some of the things that have been done in the last 12 months include the agreement we've reached with Indonesia in relation to the identification of merchant vessels that can be brought to areas where we think search and rescue is required. Recently we've also put rear doors on the Dash 8 Customs aircraft so that we can deploy life vessels - life rafts where we spot people floating in the ocean.

So there are a number of things that have occurred recently, and we will continue to review and refine the approach that we take to search and rescues based on events like this.

QUESTION: Minister, New South Wales have announced they might ban synthetic drugs, after the young death announced that last week. Is that something you'd consider - is that something the Government's considering?

JASON CLARE: Alex, I'm reticent to talk about other issues today, because we're focused on this. Just to make a point I made I made a fortnight ago on this, police ministers across Australia will meet in Darwin in the first week of July, and this is an issue that we will discuss at that meeting. I think that there are things that we can do, there are things being done overseas that we can learn from and apply here to these dangerous drugs.

QUESTION: For Australia, is that something you've considered?

JASON CLARE: Well this is something that I'm working on. I'm working on it with police ministers across the country.

QUESTION: Commander, a couple of issues. Can I ask you for the names of the merchant vessels that came to help? And secondly, in about 97 days you might have civilian chiefs telling you guys to change operations. One of those things is going to be towing boats back and pushing them back, sending them back to Indonesia. Is that going to be easily done?

DAVID JOHNSTON: The view from the command and I know certainly from the Chief of Navy, we will perform the role that any government of the day expects of us. Part of that will be making sure they understand any of the risks associated with an activity. We will mitigate them as well as we can but that we will explain them. So the role of the command and the defence forces to execute any of the policies that are given to it by the government of the day.

QUESTION: You've already talked about traumatised colleagues because of what they have to do on a daily basis. Would this add to their trauma?

DAVID JOHNSTON: It - there will be risks in those activities. The Chief of Navy has previously made comment about those and they are some of the areas that we will have to mitigate very carefully.

QUESTION: And what are the names of those merchant vessels?

DAVID JOHNSTON: The two merchant vessels - one is a container ship and the other is an oil tanker. The container ship is the Safmarine Makutu. We'll have to get you the spelling of that. And the Athena is the name of the oil tanker.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON: The risks have been made by the Chief of Navy who had had some personal experience in there so the nature of those risks can be the types of actions that people take to try to avoid being turned around and this is based on our previous observations. So where they may attempt to sabotage the vessel, threaten self-harm, so the risks are of that nature.

JASON CLARE: Alright. Thanks very much everybody.

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