Interview with Fran Kelly - ABC Radio National

22 June 2012

Topic: Search and Rescue Operation

FRAN KELLY: You're listening to RN Breakfast on this Friday morning. It's 8:30 and let's now get an update on the Christmas Island asylum-seeker boat tragedy.

The Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare joins us now. Minister, good morning.

JASON CLARE: Morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, can you just give us the latest in terms of the numbers of people who have so far been rescued from the sea, and can we confirm there were 200 people aboard this boat?

JASON CLARE: Yes, Fran, I can. We've rescued a hundred-and-ten survivors so far from the water. That happened last night. The advice I've got is that there were approximately two hundred people on board and the advice I've got is that they're all male. One of the survivors that we plucked out of the water yesterday was a thirteen-year-old boy. The remainder, I'm advised, were all adult males.

FRAN KELLY: And in terms of people who haven't survived, is it true that only three bodies have been recovered so far?

JASON CLARE: Yes. You can understand that the concentration of effort last night was on people that had survived and getting them out of the water as quickly as possible.

Three deceased adult men were recovered and there are more bodies out there. As part of the search and rescue effort today we'll recover as many bodies as we can. The focus, though, continues on trying to save as many lives as we possibly can.

FRAN KELLY: Has anyone been rescued from the sea this morning since that initial recovery last night of the hundred-and-ten?

JASON CLARE: No, that's not the advice that I've got. This is all happening, by the way, just so people understand, about half way between Christmas Island and Indonesia, about a hundred-and-ten nautical miles north of Christmas Island. We've got…

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] How many nautical miles off the Indonesian coast is it?

JASON CLARE: Around about the same, about a hundred-and-nine nautical miles south of Indonesia, so it's right in the middle. One of our patrol boats, Larrakia, is stationed out there now. The other patrol boat has returned to Christmas Island to transfer the people that we've rescued last night, and as soon as it's done that it'll immediately return to recommence the rescue operations.

We've got four merchant vessels that are on their way to assist with the rescue effort again today, and three aircraft that will be in the air through the course of the day to try and identify survivors so that we can pluck them out of the ocean while we still we can. We're still in that critical thirty-six-hour window where we could potentially find more people alive.

FRAN KELLY: But there's five ships there at the moment, actively searching for people. It must be a fairly gruesome scene out there with bodies.

JASON CLARE: You can only imagine. This is a massive operation; planes and boats, all of our people mustering every effort that we can with a simple purpose to try to find more people alive.

FRAN KELLY: It's twenty-seven minutes to nine on Breakfast. Our guest this morning is the Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare, talking about that tragedy that's happened half way between Christmas Island and Indonesia, a boat capsizing.

Minister, the Indonesian authorities say that Australia first alerted them to an asylum-seeking boat taking on water earlier this week. Can you confirm that? When was this boat first noticed? Is this the same boat that they're talking about?

JASON CLARE: Yes. We first got notice of this boat at ten o'clock on Tuesday night. We received a phone call from the boat and were advised that they were experiencing difficulties but weren't given details of where they were located. At that time, AMSA, the Australian Maritime and Safety Authority, provided that information both to our operational agencies but also to Indonesia's search and rescue authority.

A couple of hours later, 1:30 in the morning on Wednesday morning, we received a further call from the vessel saying that it was experiencing difficulties and at that time they told us they were thirty-eight nautical miles south of Indonesia. I'm advised that at that time AMSA told the people on the boat to return to Indonesia.

It is now obvious they didn't do that. That information was passed to the Indonesian authorities and to our authorities as well.

FRAN KELLY: And so that was Wednesday morning?

JASON CLARE: That was Wednesday morning.

FRAN KELLY: So that was a full twenty-four hours before the boat was seen to be capsized?

JASON CLARE: That's right. It was more than that. So Wednesday…

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] So had the Indonesian authorities made any effort since they were alerted on Tuesday night to go to the aid of this boat which was, according to them, still only thirty-eight nautical miles away?

JASON CLARE: I don't have details on that, Fran, unfortunately. The details I've got in front of me is that that call was made at 1:30am Wednesday morning. At 3:15 on Wednesday we identified this boat continuing to head south towards Christmas Island, and the advice that I have here indicates that there were no visual signs that this boat was in distress. That's from the Dash 8 that observed it overhead.

Nevertheless, we prepositioned boats at Christmas Island in the event that further requests for assistance were received. As you've said, at three o'clock yesterday when the Dash 8 went out again, we found the boat capsized with about forty men on top of the upturned hull of the boat.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, there's been criticism of the Australian authorities in very recent past for not responding quickly enough, in fact for delaying after receiving calls from vessels - stricken vessels - and not alerting authorities in Indonesia and on Christmas Island to help rescue and tragedies occurring because of that.

In this case, if the Indonesians didn't respond when we first got that call on three o'clock again on Wednesday morning, Christmas Island from my calculations - they would've been about a hundred-and-eighty nautical miles away from Christmas Island.

Did the naval vessels or did the search and rescue vessels from Christmas Island head towards them at that point and, if not, why not?

JASON CLARE: No, they began to head north at about three o'clock yesterday afternoon. To put this in perspective, as I said, half way between Christmas Island and Indonesia. To get to that distance, it took the patrol boats about four hours to get there. So it is quite a distance. Those boats took off at three o'clock. They arrived on the scene…

FRAN KELLY: Three o'clock yesterday, though, not three o'clock Wednesday?

JASON CLARE: No, that's right, 3:00pm yesterday, Thursday, and they arrived on the scene at 7:20pm.

FRAN KELLY: And not trying to blame anybody here, but could this have been averted and do we need to relook at our protocols? If we get a call from a vessel and AMSA alerts the Indonesians and alerts the search and rescue teams on Christmas Island, shouldn't both steam towards the point? I mean, if that'd happened these people might still be alive.

JASON CLARE: Well Fran, I'm not going conduct an investigation today. There will be a full investigation into this as there always is if there's a death at sea. The information I've been receiving this morning indicates a high degree of proactivity by Australian authorities, both as soon as they get the information telling BASARNAS, telling the Indonesian search and rescue authority, telling our customs agency. A high degree of proactivity with planes overhead and pre-positioning.

Of course, as absolutely must happen, there needs to be a full investigation to make sure that everything that should've been done was done.

FRAN KELLY: And the investigation aside, Minister, what else can be done to stop these tragedies happening? Because tragically - and the risk of overusing that word – there's no other word to describe it really - we've had reports too of other boats disappearing with people - ninety people aboard, just disappearing, presumed drowned over the last couple of years.

What needs to be done? Does the Australian Government need to somehow come up with a policy to stop these boats coming and if it can't convince the Coalition to join it in its Malaysia policy, does it need to back down and back the Opposition's policy?

JASON CLARE: Well Fran, we've had more than two hundred people now die in the last six months. Two hundred people drowned off the coast of Indonesia in December. Eleven drowned off the coast of Malaysia in February. More have died in the last twenty-four hours. How many is not exactly clear.

The search continues today to try to find more people alive. My focus today is the rescue effort. There are still people out there. There are still people that are potentially alive. There's going to be a political debate as sure as night follows day, but that's a debate for another day.

FRAN KELLY: And Minister, just finally, on another issue because we're about to hear again from Julian Assange. We spoke to him earlier. You are the Minister for Justice, the senior minister. Attorney-General Nicola Roxon told us yesterday that Julian Assange had received an unprecedented level of consular support from the Australian High Commission.

This morning Julian Assange said he'd received - his most recent contact was an SMS text message saying does Mr Assange have any concerns, and he says he hasn't actually met anyone from the High Commission since December 2010. Is that a fair description of the level of consular assistance the Government's been referring to?

JASON CLARE: Well Fran, I can't add to the comments that have been made both by Foreign Minister Bob Carr as well as by the Attorney-General Nicola Roxon. I'm sure, as you'd appreciate; my focus is elsewhere this morning, focused on this rescue effort to try to make sure that we save as many people as we can.

FRAN KELLY: Jason Clare, thank you very much for joining us.

JASON CLARE: Thanks Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Jason Clare is the Home Affairs and Justice Minister. It's twenty-one minutes to nine.



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