CEO interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National Breakfast

Australian Customs & Border Protection Service
15 July 2013


TOPICS: Rescue of man overboard; foundered vessel; Border Protection Command response to search and rescue.

FRAN KELLY: Michael Pezzullo is CEO of Customs. Michael Pezzullo, good morning. Welcome to Breakfast.

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: Hi, Fran. Good to be with you.

FRAN KELLY: Can we go to Friday's tragedy where it looks as though as many as nine people are dead? Why did it take more than five hours for Customs to dispatch their search and rescue vessel between the time you go the distress call and the time the boat was dispatched?

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: Well, two things, Fran. First of all, that will be the subject of an internal review and because there's been a death here, which involves a body being recovered to Christmas Island, there is likely to be a coronial down the track, so all of those questions will be looked at.

But can I just make the fundamental point, and I'm happy to answer your questions in detail, that I reject categorically, absolutely categorically on behalf of my own service, the Customs and Border Protection Service, the Defence Force, and AMSA, that we treat asylum seekers with disdain. That's outrageous.

FRAN KELLY: Well, Tony Kevin says that's the only explanation for the way you behave.

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: No stop, Fran. Fran, I understand that he's completely wrong. Mr Kevin's been offered a briefing to come down to our centre to see how we deal with multiple contacts of interest, some of which might be asylum seekers, some of which might be fishing vessels in distress, and he's been invited to come down and get briefed on the high tempo of operations and the need that AMSA, in particular, who run the Rescue Coordination Centre, have to very, very carefully make judgements about which is the highest priority distress. That was what was going on Friday.

FRAN KELLY: So let's go through it. On Friday at 12:30pm, AMSA's Rescue Coordination Centre requested your help in locating the vessel.


FRAN KELLY: You say this was not a request to deploy a vessel or an aircraft.

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: No, that's right Fran.

FRAN KELLY: What was it then? What's the difference?

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: There's two things Fran. AMSA have to rely on multiple sources of information. They get calls from the public. In this case, there was a gentleman who had rung the AFP. They also get calls from other parties. They also get calls from the asylum seekers on occasions from the vessel in distress, and they also can rely on government sources, such as ours, and we have multiple systems that can assist. That was the request that was received at 12.30pm.

After evaluating all of that information, AMSA go through a process – they're highly professional, they're technically very proficient – to decide that an asset has to actually be deployed, and that call came around about 4.30-4.45pm.

FRAN KELLY: That's a long time to make - from the time they got the call, by 12.30pm they asked you, AMSA had received the call an hour before that, and then you don't get asked to deploy for five hours. That's a very long time.

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: There are two key factors here, Fran. A lot of these vessels are making these calls, and if in the spirit of a public safety announcement, I can say, if you don't need the help, don't make the call, because what's happening is that it's equivalent of getting multiple Triple 0 calls, some of which are genuine - and I think this is Mr Kevin's point, although, I think it's come out in an outrageously offensive manner.

In other cases, they are calls for someone to attend to ensure that they are picked up by Australian authorities, in other cases they are circumstances where the engine's cut out, waters coming in, et cetera.

AMSA have to make some very, very fine line bold decisions about how to task some very scarce resources, some of which might be merchant shipping in the area, and in other cases, our vessels.

FRAN KELLY: So this goes to the heart of it, doesn't it? Because according to the National Search and Rescue Manual, when search and rescue systems first become aware of a potential emergency – so they get the call – the aim should be to – quote - locate, support, and rescue persons in distress in the shortest possible time.


FRAN KELLY: So that's the-

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: -That's absolutely right.

FRAN KELLY: That's the mission statement. But what you're telling us is that in fact – to use the language given by an AMSA official, the head of AMSA's search and rescue last month at a coronial inquiry – he said unfortunately refugee boats tend to follow a script. So what you're saying is that learned experience means that there's not the shortest possible time, there's time taken to try and ascertain whether this is a real emergency or not.

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: And the reason why we do that Fran, in December 2010 to take one example, we saw the terrible tragedy of that boat crashing to the rocks at Christmas Island.

If we push our assets, which are patrolling around Christmas Island, remembering that our sovereign territory's there, there is then over 200 nautical miles between that point and the southern shore of Java. If we're constantly pushing our assets up to the north, just think about the geometry of that.

As you go further forward, what you're doing is, you are leaving gaps where other vessels can get in distress and you create further complications by having to then backtrack to go to those. It's a very, very difficult complex technical task.

We've offered Mr Kevin the brief. Three weeks ago he came back to me saying that he'll give it due consideration. If he was serious about informing himself on how these matters are dealt with, he should accept the briefing.

FRAN KELLY: But when Tony Kevin says, and I'm quoting him here, there's an entrenched doctrine in the Australian border protection and maritime safety system that distress calls from asylum seekers are not be believed, they're having a lend of us. To some degree, that's the end of his quote-

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: -That is not true.

FRAN KELLY: But to some degree, you're saying that is true because very often the case is, and the thinking is, this may not be a real emergency.

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: No, it's like any Triple 0 type situation. You've got to evaluate the information, corroborate as best you can, because if you send all of your assets to the wrong part of the ocean, people will die somewhere else. We don't approach it, Fran, on the basis that we have a differential approach for asylum seekers, that we have disdain, or that somehow we discriminate against people on the basis of their ethnicity or their legal status. That is just outrageous.

FRAN KELLY: So how do you evaluate then, whether this is a real emergency, or this is just an attempt to try and get people to get assistance to get to Christmas Island?

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: Fran, this is a great question. You have to bring all your sources to bear. Some of those sources are very technical; they're also, in some cases, related to some of our classified systems. We have reduced over the last four years all of the gaps involved in getting classified information to those who need it who operate on unclassified systems. We follow up calls, we bring all national capabilities to bear, plus of course the organic assets that our patrol vessels have, things like their own surface search radars, we have P3s in the area, we have Dash-8’s in the area, we bring everything to bear.

And can I just say to take - to prove that to you Fran, or to evidence that, just yesterday we had a report that we received yesterday afternoon that a person on a different vessel, it's a different issue, had fallen overboard. The master of the vessel had fallen overboard. We kept pursing that lead until gratifyingly late last night we found the man.

A P3 – and God knows how they did it in that vast ocean – found a man clinging to, I think it's a barrel or some kind of debris and he was recovered. He's a very, very lucky man and he's been recovered by some great seamanship of HMAS Bathurst and they're coming back into Christmas Island as we speak.

FRAN KELLY: Was this an asylum seeker boat?

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: Yes it was Fran and the announcement about that - that arrival will be made by the Minister once we've done the full head count and once the persons have been landed at Christmas Island. But I'm just giving you advanced information for you and your listeners that any suggestion we don't keep going out there, we don't keep searching, that we just simply ignore cries for help is completely without foundation.

FRAN KELLY: It's 11 minutes to nine on Breakfast. Our guest this morning is Michael Pezzullo, CEO of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.

Michael Pezzullo, how connected are the length of time before boats are sent and boats get to rescue situations, to how stretched the services are? Because I think your own statement points out that there's a very high level of operations at the moment in the waters?

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: Well at the moment Fran it [indistinct] a little bit in June, but if you leave June aside, at the moment we're getting somewhere in the average of about 40 boats a month. Most of those – almost three-quarters – are targeting Christmas Island. That is a very, very high tempo. We have our assets concentrated around Christmas Island. We have Australian Defence Force surface assets, we have aircraft, we have our own Customs and Border Protection vessels, we have our own contracted aircraft. And I must also pay homage to the merchant vessels who almost invariably respond, as they should, both by international law, but also from their own sense of duty on the seas, merchant vessels also respond to AMSA broadcast as well.

FRAN KELLY: So you say that Australian rescue authorities respond urgently to every mission. Others say they don't, that there is this doctrine of uncertainty and there is in fact something called within their own search and rescue manual, the uncertainty phase when you try and work that out. There's also examples others have given in the past where they say Customs vessels, planes have flown over stationary asylum seeker vessels with passengers waving out at Christmas Island, not classed as a rescue or emergency and then later those people were found to be drowned. I mean this is a real example the people cite. So do sometimes, do the authorities get it wrong?

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: Fran, these are operations being conducted in high tempo. In another circumstance you've probably heard the phrase “the fog of war”. It's very, very difficult to have absolutely perfect knowledge. It is a very, very busy area. It's busy because there are a lot of boats coming, particularly targeting Christmas Island. We have relative to the number of boats coming, stretched resources. That's evident by the high tempo that we're experiencing. And yes, you've got to apply critical judgement to every single piece of intelligence and every single call that you get.

Does that suggest for a moment that we differentiate between calls from asylum seekers that we don't trust, we treat with disdain, that we don't believe, versus applying critical judgement to say on balance, I think this is actually something worth deploying a resource against, versus we've got to keep an eye on this one? And yes we'll deploy aircraft, we'll employ other sensors to try to get to the bottom of what is the true state of affairs on the water, but we do not - and I repeat, do not – distinguish on the basis of ethnicity or legal status.

FRAN KELLY: So just finally is it a case perhaps that it's taking too long - you say the area is huge which of course it is, asylum seeker advocates say it's pretty tried and true roots between parts of Java and Christmas Island and we should be deploying more of our vessels in that area so that we can have a quicker response.

I mean for instance in the case of the Customs vessel the Triton, it didn't arrive at the scene - this scene until 10pm. That's a long time from the emergency call at 11.15am.

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: Fran, and I'll keep this short in the interest of time because I know you're pressed, our responsibility - and I'm not shying away from the points that I made - our responsibility is to patrol around our sovereign territory.

Generally speaking, we've got sovereign jurisdiction over an area of 24 nautical miles around Christmas Island. It sits within the Indonesian search and rescue zone. If we were to patrol further north, just off Java for instance, there is a very high risk, in fact a near certainty, that as we patrol further north, unless you've got an absolute ring of steel, vessels will get past you and what you will then be doing is doing the opposite thing which is charging in the opposite direction to the south and taking that amount of time. It's just simple physics - to cover that kind of area it's about 200-plus nautical miles steaming at 10, 12, up to 20 knots on occasions. You're always going to measure your response time in hours.

And I've just got to end Fran by saying that the credibility sometimes assigned to people and I'm not going to be personal or particular here, but people who are so called experts and they're given air time on these situations without understanding how operations are conducted. Well frankly you might as well get someone on saying that BPC shot JFK, or abducted Harold D Holt. It's in that realm of conspiracy.

I reject it out of hand and it shouldn't be given the credence that it is.

FRAN KELLY: Michael Pezzullo, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.


FRAN KELLY: Michael Pezzullo is CEO of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.


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