COMMITTEE - Christmas Island Tragedy Committee Report

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (12:27): by leave—I follow the member for Stirling in addressing the report of the Joint Select Committee on the Christmas Island Tragedy. By virtue of our election to this place, we are required to participate in a number of different committees. This committee was one where our participation took on a solemn element because, on so many different levels, this was particularly difficult—absolutely so for those people who had to endure the events of that day, 15 December. By that I mean not just those people who were on the vessel on that day, 15 December, but also the range of people who were required to respond and extend assistance to those who had found themselves in what turned out to be such harrowing circumstances. Those circumstances resulted in loss of life for 30 people and there are another 20 missing. Those 20 people are now presumed to have been taken by the ocean. For me, it was, in many respects, an eye-opening experience.

For a lot of people, due to television, Christmas Island appears closer than it is. Because they appear on our television screens, the events that occur on and about Christmas Island appear to be relatively close. But getting to Christmas Island takes a significant effort, given its location—its distance away from the Australian mainland—and it also requires an effort for those who would seek to improperly enter our shores and seek asylum. The events of that day were reflected upon by the member for Stirling but were also, importantly, the subject of reflection by the people of Christmas Island themselves—the people who appeared before the committee. They told us in clear terms that weather conditions such as those experienced on that day had not, in living memory, been witnessed by the people who were there or by people who had been there previously. The conditions that had been reported on by the Bureau of Meteorology and the swells that had been recorded in the period leading up to 15 December and shortly thereafter were simply beyond belief. Again, as has been noted by the member for Stirling, that proved a challenge to and tested the responses of a variety of government agencies, not only in the immediate aftermath but also in regard to detection and being able to ascertain whether what people were looking at was a small wooden vessel or a wave, even using modern surveillance techniques. There was a lot of discussion after the event about what could have been done to detect the oncoming vessel using radar but, as has clearly been shown, most modern radar would have been extremely tested and it would probably have been impossible to detect a vessel in those conditions.

What we were left with on that day was basically a mammoth response, testing the limits of responders themselves and also Christmas Island residents—and we had an opportunity to hear their accounts when they appeared before the committee. A lot of us saw footage from that day, and the committee also had the benefit, if I may use the word in a misplaced sense, of the Royal Australian Navy footage that showed the strength and the force of the ocean and what those people who serve for us in the RAN had to go through on that day to save lives. The member for Stirling mentioned the diesel cast into the ocean when the vessel broke. As I remarked in the House a few weeks ago, the diesel made it extremely difficult for rescuers when they were trying to drag into the RHIBs these people, who were flailing in the water. The rescuers were trying to pick them up but the arms of the people wanting to be saved were slipping through their grasp. The fact that 42 were saved is remarkable in itself given what the RAN had to go through.

I also think of the desperate plight of those on the shoreline, watching as the vessel broke up before their very eyes and they were unable in any way, shape or form to save people other than by throwing out lifejackets or other sorts of flotation devices. Their efforts were remarkable. They tried to do whatever they could but in many respects, as they told us, they felt completely and utterly helpless when faced with those conditions. They were unable to reach out and help those people who were in such terrible and diabolical circumstances.

As people have said many times over, the responses by people from the RAN, from Customs and from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, and by onshore health providers as well, were phenomenal. We could still see the after-effects in the people who appeared before us—people who are professionals but who, as much as they obviously seek to carry out their functions in a dispassionate way and in a way that is as efficient as possible, were still clearly traumatised by the events of 15 December. That is why the committee recommended that ongoing support be provided not only to the people who were on SIEV221 but also to the people who responded and tried to provide assistance on that day. It is clear that they are still, in their own way, reliving these incidents themselves. The hearts of committee members are with the survivors and families who lost loved ones but they are also with the residents, Customs and Navy officials who were involved on that day.

The report clearly outlines the great difficulties faced, and it finds no fault with the response by government agencies. A range of consensus recommendations were put forward by the committee which we would encourage the government to examine and act on as soon as possible. Clearly there are limitations on how much detail we can go into while a coronial inquest is being carried out, but I share the sentiment expressed by the member for Stirling that the actions of those people who seek to profit from the desperation of others by putting people onto vessels that they know are simply not seaworthy are to be deplored. I represent a seat in Western Sydney and, as I said at the outset, going from Western Sydney to Christmas Island takes a significant effort. People are mistakenly encouraged to embark on a journey that takes two solid days on seas that put them, put their loved ones, put children, in peril. I simply cannot fathom how in some quarters we seek to glorify the role of people who put others on vessels and profit from that and believe they are doing human good. Clearly people's lives are being put in serious danger.

The RAN said they could never, with a clear conscience, put people on their own vessels in conditions like this—and bear in mind the significant differences between the vessels the RAN command and these other vessels that people are being put on. They are being made to endure two days of travel in terrible seas to get here. The RAN says they could not even imagine putting someone into these conditions, if they had concerns for the people they were responsible for, on their own vessels let alone the vessels being used—in particular the vessel on that day—to bring people here. As I said before, I cannot fathom that we would believe that seeking to profit from that in that way is a responsible course of action; it clearly is not.

My participation in this committee has clearly highlighted to me that we need to take steps that some people outside of this place, and even people who are close to me who have different views, would say we should not undertake. I submit to this place that that trip, with the elements that people face and the massive risk to those and their loved ones on those vessels, is simply too high a risk and we should take whatever steps we can to prevent people from even thinking about getting on vessels that clearly are not seaworthy. This report highlights the tragedy that hit the families who attempted this crossing and the impact it had on the people who tried to save them.

In closing, I would also like to thank the chair, Senator Marshall, and the deputy chair, the member for Stirling, and the other members on the committee. I thank the secretariat for working tirelessly to bring this report together. As my friend and colleague the member for Moreton has said about border protection, as a country we have to patrol an area equivalent to 11 per cent of the world's oceans, but we do not have 11 per cent of the world's population. That we have to patrol 1.4 million square nautical miles and then prepare a response to the circumstances that confronted people on 15 December is simply extraordinary. I hope that the report opens eyes to what people suffered and endured on 15 December. The great lengths that were gone to by the people who responded on behalf of Australians to help those in desperate need on that day were simply extraordinary. I certainly commend the report to the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms AE Burke ): Does the member for Stirling wish to move a motion in connection with the report to enable it to be debated on a future occasion?

Mr KEENAN: I move:

That the House take note of the report.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: In accordance with standing order 39, the debate is adjourned. The resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley


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