Press Conference – Sydney



17 July 2013

JASON CLARE: I’m joined here by Admiral David Johnston, the Head of Border Protection Command. We can now give you a briefing on the latest information from the rescue overnight. Overnight, our officers have rescued 144 people from the sea and recovered the bodies of four other people: two women in their late 20s, early 30s, one man in his 20s and one man in his 30s. All of this happened in very rough conditions, sea state 4, so waves of around about two metres, 67 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

I will now take you through the chronology of events and all of the times I will give you are Australian Eastern Standard Time.

At approximately 3.30pm on Monday, an RAAF maritime patrol vessel detected a vessel approximately 136 nautical miles north north-east of Christmas Island during a routine surveillance flight. The vessel was reported to be heading in a southerly direction at approximately three knots towards Christmas Island. At approximately 9.45pm on Monday night, HMAS Albany was asked to track the vessel as it went towards Christmas Island.

At approximately 12.40am on Tuesday morning, Albany located the vessel and commenced monitoring it. The vessel was still heading in a southerly direction and Albany reported it showed no signs of distress.

At approximately 2.45am, the Rescue Coordination Centre requested assets to assist after they received a phone call from people on the vessel that it was reportedly stopped in the water with the engines not working. The Rescue Coordination Centre also issued a distress message at that time to shipping in the area to respond. At approximately 3.30am on Tuesday morning, the vessel that Albany was monitoring was confirmed to be the same vessel that had requested assistance. Albany continued to monitor and reported that the vessel at that time showed no signs of distress. At 12 noon yesterday, Border Protection Command tasked HMAS Warramunga to head north to assist HMAS Albany, given the large number of people that were identified as being on the boat.

At approximately 12.05, so shortly thereafter, the Rescue Coordination Centre advised Border Protection Command that it had received a number of further calls from people on the vessel stating that they were in need of assistance. At that time, Rescue Coordination Centre requested Albany to close on the vessel and provide assistance as required.

At approximately 1.10pm yesterday, HMAS Albany closed in to board the vessel to determine the nature of assistance required. However, weather conditions and the high sides of the vessel prevented the boarding party from getting on board. Albany reported that the vessel appeared sea worthy. One engine was working, one wasn’t and the bilge pump was working. At approximately 2pm, Warramunga arrived on the scene and at approximately 2.20pm, Albany commenced escorting the vessel.

At approximately 6pm, the vessel began to lean to one side and passengers began jumping into the water. At approximately 6.40pm, Albany reported that the vessel rolled and capsized. A total of six life rafts were deployed by Albany and Warramunga, as well as a P3 Orion aircraft which was overhead. The naval vessels also deployed their small boats to assist in rescuing the people that were in the water. At approximately 9.20pm, Warramunga had rescued 76 persons and Albany had rescued 68. Four deceased people were also recovered from the water. At 9.40pm last night, the Rescue Coordination Centre suspended the search for survivors. The initial advice received was there was something in the order of 180 people on the vessel. Information from the crew of the vessel indicates now that there were 150 or approximately 150 people on the vessel.

That’s the latest information that we have. Let me use this opportunity to thank the men and women of Border Protection Command for the work they do. This is tough, hard, difficult, dangerous work that they do and I want to thank them and the agencies that have assisted them in the work they have done over the course of the last 48 hours.

The Admiral and I are very happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: What was the cause of the capsize, was it just rough seas or do you think sabotage may have played a role in this?

DAVID JOHNSTON: We don’t know the answer to that question at the moment. It appeared to have occurred quite quickly in terms of from when the people were jumping in the water to when the vessel eventually fully capsized was in the order of 30-40 minutes. So what the circumstances were, whether it was a combination of the weather or the vessel taking on water, we just don’t know. That, I expect, would be something that would become available after the survivors are interviewed.

QUESTION: Question on the role of the Albany. Was monitoring the boat for 24 hours, about 24 hours prior to the capsize. Is that about right?

DAVID JOHNSTON: It arrived in the area during the evening and then remained with that vessel during the course of the day. So it had certainly been with it for a period in excess of 12 hours.

QUESTION: When the Minister said that the Albany was monitoring the boat, what does that mean? Does that mean in its line of sight, how do you monitor a boat. What I’m getting at Sir is why didn’t you intercept and try and board the vessel as soon as possible?

DAVID JOHNSTON: So the Minister mentioned that Albany first detected the vessel during the night. At that point, there was no request for assistance so it was still some considerable distance, 80 miles from Christmas Island. We found our experience has been that boarding vessel, we don’t have a lawful reason to board, particularly when there is no request for assistance at that distance, but also we know that any boarding event that you conduct, particularly at night, and in the weather conditions that were experienced, are very dangerous.

So there was no need for the vessel to board. There had been no request for assistance. That changed during the course of the day, but the weather remained prevalent throughout that period so it was always a very difficult environment. The Minister mentioned sea state 4, so that is weather in the order of 2.5 metre swells. During the morning it had increased briefly to about four-metre seas. Extremely difficult weather to conduct operations in, both to launch a boat but also to try to get on board another vessel.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say the Albany made the call that it was safer to sort and monitor on Christmas Island rather than disembark passengers (inaudible)

DAVID JOHNSTON: So the Albany did make an attempt to board in the early afternoon, so after the Rescue Coordination Centre had received further calls from the vessel seeking assistance, they sought the assistance of Albany to put a boarding party in. They attempted to do so, so they launched their boat in the water, closed alongside the vessel but were unable to get the people on board it. So that’s when they made the judgment that, given the inability to get on board the vessel, it was much safer and the ship at that point reported that there were no apparent concerns. This vessel remained underway. It’s a 30-metre vessel, quite solid, looks like an interisland cargo vessel. Their judgment was it was safer to try to extract their boarding party and remain in close proximity to this vessel but escort it into Christmas Island.

QUESTION: How big was the vessel. Obviously it held quite a lot of people. Was it overcrowded or was it (inaudible)?

DAVID JOHNSTON: It’s about 30 metres long. There is certainly a lot of people on it, but it doesn’t look – they’re not jam packed as we have seen in other vessels that we have intercepted.

QUESTION: Sorry, the crew members, have they been taken into custody?

DAVID JOHNSTON: The crew members have been rescued, so they are part of the group that we are now taking into Christmas Island.

QUESTION: Do we know who the crew members are and who the crew members are and who the passengers are?


QUESTION: What origins were the passengers from?

JASON CLARE: A number of different countries, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran as well as from Iraq.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: That’s our expectation.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: I will commence and the Admiral might elaborate. We’ve seen fluctuations over the last few months of smaller boats and then larger boats. Certainly over the last week or two we have seen larger boats in terms of larger numbers of passengers, not necessarily larger boats. There is no doubt in my mind that people smugglers will try to put as many people on a boat as they possibly can for this very simple reason that the more people you get on a boat, the more money you make. If you can put 100 people on a boat, you can make $1 million. If you can put 200 people on a boat, you can make $2 million.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: I wouldn’t be surprised if people smugglers tell prospective passengers anything to get them on a boat. They will lie about elections before an election and they’ll lie afterwards to get people on to a boat in order to make money. But this fluctuates – depending upon how many people they can identify looking to get on to a boat.

QUESTION: Are they lying, is that what you are saying?

JASON CLARE: I don’t have particular information on that at the moment, Paul, but I would make the very basic point, these people are driven by money. The more people they can get onto a boat, the more money they make, and if the cost is that some people drowned on the way, they don’t care.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: Not in this case, but more generally people pay between $5000 and $10,000 to get onto a boat. Sometimes they pay with their life, and we’ve seen that again today.

QUESTION: Any children on board this time?


QUESTION: Young children?

DAVID JOHNSTON: We believe there are a number of infants. We don’t have the complete count because not all the people have been transferred to Christmas Island, but I understand there were infants involved, yes.

QUESTION: Roughly how many kids on the boat?

DAVID JOHNSTON: The initial number I’ve got is in the order of somewhere up to potentially 19 of the 144, but that count is not at all clear yet.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: All of these circumstances are different. They depend upon the information that we have to determine how quickly we can get there to identify the vessel and, where necessary, rescue people from the sea. But in all of these circumstances where people die, there is an internal review conducted by Customs and Border Protection. I had that conversation last night with the chief executive officer of Customs and Border Protection. That review will occur, and the West Australian Coroner also has the option, if they so desire, to conduct an independent review of this work, this search and rescue, and so it’s open to the Coroner to conduct that work as well.

QUESTION: Does Border Protection Command need more assets?

JASON CLARE: I act on advice from the operational experts, from the Admiral, as well as from the men and women of Border Protection Command.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: Let me explain in broad terms those assets, something in the order of 17, 18 vessels, be they Navy vessels or Customs vessels, as well as something like 17 or 18 aircraft. They are AMSA aircraft as well as Customs aircraft and Air Force aircraft. From time to time we will also lease commercial aircraft to do that work, as well as satellite technology. So that’s in broad terms the kind of assets we bring to do this work, and it’s hard work. It’s very hard work, and we have seen that hard work happen again over the last 24 hours. Admiral?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Without question, our people are clearly working very hard at the moment, and the operational tempo that we have experienced, particularly over the last few weeks with some very significant arrivals, are pushing people in order to make sure that we can continue to meet our responsibilities. One of the tasks I have to continuously look at – where I need to have ships and aircraft. That’s a process that we do a few times every day. So, we are continuously looking at the environment that we’re dealing with and adjusting where we position the capabilities that we need in order to meet our role.

QUESTION: You have got 17 or 18 boats out there. As you say, it’s a very high operational [inaudible] getting two or three boats a day on some days is not unusual. Do you need more boats?

DAVID JOHNSTON: If I need more vessels, than then I have the ability to provide advice, particularly back through – I draw on both the Customs and Defence capabilities and I can turn and ask that question.

QUESTION: Will you be asking that question?

DAVID JOHNSTON: We will keep it under review and if I need to do so, then I will do so.

QUESTION: How sustainable is the current tempo [indistinct]?

DAVID JOHNSTON: The men and women, from their boats, are working very hard. So we need to – the sustainable question is both about making sure we’ve got the number of ships or aircraft to deal with it, but also that we are looking after our people and making sure that as they’re dealing with circumstances as we have, involving fatalities – the conditions under which they were performing rescues in the last 48 hours, they were very complex conditions, they were working extremely hard. So I need to make sure that we are looking after them as well and we have the measures in place to do so.

QUESTION: They must feel overwhelmed, [indistinct]?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Dealing with deaths is particularly difficult. It is difficult for the circumstances that – physically difficult in terms of the environment in their working, and emotionally very for all of us. It is a dreadful feeling in the stomach when we hear that a vessel has capsized or that it’s in some difficulty and then we are responding to try to ensure we are bringing as many people as we can to safety.

Recovering 144 people in the conditions that they did yesterday was extraordinary work. It happened very quickly. There are measures that they took in the combined – the co-operation between two ships and an aircraft deploying life rafts, recovering people from the water, the way they sequenced it to make sure they were recovering people, particularly out of the water, as quickly as they could in rough weather conditions – my praise for them is unlimited because of what they have achieved.

QUESTION: This policy has only seen arguing in Canberra [indistinct] …do you feel let down in any way by the policy debate?

DAVID JOHNSTON: We have got a job to do and we do it to the best of our abilities. The politics and the policies are not my issue. But my need is to make sure I’ve got the people there and I’m helping our people do their job.

QUESTION: Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has confirmed that the Government is working on changes to the asylum seeker policy. When can we expect to have this policy revealed, will it be within the next couple of days?

JASON CLARE: I’m not going to pre-empt or foreshadow when those policies will be announced. The Deputy Prime Minister this morning confirmed, it’s been confirmed in the past I think as well, that we are working on further reforms in this area. That’s the case, but I’m not going to announce today when those reforms will be announced.

Just before we move on to the next question, I just wanted to reinforce the point that the Admiral made. The question was asked about how difficult this is for our men and women – it’s a lot easier talking about it at a press conference here in Sydney than it is being out there on the high seas when waves are crashing against wooden boats that are lurching and then sinking in the middle of the ocean. For a moment we’ve got to stop and think about the work that those men and women are doing. They have plucked over 100 people out of the water overnight, but they have also had to recover the bodies of people that have died.

You have to think about the psychological impact that it has on our men and women that do this work. They have done it before. They have had to do it again overnight. When bodies are in the ocean for more than 24 hours, that job gets much, much more difficult. And so an important part of the work that we have to do after the rescue has been made, and after the bodies have been recovered, is make sure that we’ve got the support services for our men and women that have done this work. We always make sure that we have got those services. It’s a conversation that the Admiral and I have all the time, do we have enough support for the men and women when they get back to Christmas Island or when they get back to Darwin, to go through what they have just experienced, and make sure that they are okay? Because this is really, really hard work.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: Well, I won’t get into the politics of this today. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be talking politics on a day when four people have died. This is a wretchedly difficult area and it’s been poisoned by politics. We have been fighting about this for more than ten years. And people of Australia are sick and tired of politicians fighting about this. They don’t want us screaming at each other, they want us to work together. If we are going to fix this God-awful problem, then we need to work together. That’s the solution.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

JASON CLARE: I will make a general point, Paul. And that is that when you have got a situation as serious as this where people are dying, the Government of the day should be given the power it thinks it needs to stop people dying at sea. That’s a very simple principle. When people are dying, the Government should be given the power that it thinks it needs to stop this happening.

Now it’s a sad fact that we have been denied that. We have been denied that in the past by the Liberal Party and by the Greens. The principle which we should all agree to, whether there is a Labor Government or a Liberal Government or anything else, is that the Government of the day should be given the power it needs to stop people dying at sea. If we can all agree to that, then it will go a long way to stopping events like last night happening again.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] …will they require co-operation of the Coalition?

JASON CLARE: Paul, you are asking me to now foreshadow work that the Government is doing, I’m not going to do that. I’ve made the point that the Government of the day should be given the power it thinks it needs to stop people dying. If that happens, then we can stop a repeat of what happened last night.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] …are we likely to see other measures in the area of say regional co-operation?

JASON CLARE: I know you are digging away. Look, I would make this point, Paul, and it’s not a point that would surprise you. Two things are necessary if you want to tackle this issue, this difficult issue. One is co-operation at home, and the second is co-operation in our region. So we need all of the political parties to work together on the principle that the Government be given the power it thinks it needs to stop this happening. And we need to work together as a region.

I’ve made the point before that after Saigon fell in 1975, that people fled in boats to Malaysia, to the Philippines and to Thailand and it was the UN working with those countries, and countries like Australia – Canada, France, the US, that helped to tackle that issue then. Regional co-operation – working together. To successfully tackle this issue, we need to work together at home, stop the political fighting, and we need to work together with the countries of our region.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] …what impact these new measures, whatever they are, will have on boat trafficking?

JASON CLARE: I’m not going to go there. You are asking me to talk to you about something which the Government hasn’t announced yet. I just make the general point, and the Prime Minister’s made this, you need to continue to adjust policies as circumstances change. We will continue to do that.

QUESTION: Just one more question on this point. This is your second of these press conferences in a week. [Indistinct] …this is going to keep happening until you guys toughen policy. I would suggest this is a major priority. When are we likely to hear an announcement on these new border security measures?

JASON CLARE: While ever people continue to get on to boats, boats that aren’t sea worthy, people will die. We have been seeing that. That’s why it’s so important that all the political parties of Australia agree to the simple principle that the Government should be given the power it thinks it needs to stop this happening.

QUESTION: Was that boat unseaworthy, the boat [indistinct]?

JASON CLARE: In the chronology that I gave you, it indicated that when the Albany was nearby, I think it was early on Tuesday night or early Tuesday morning that indicated that the boat was sea worthy. When it did a closer inspection it identified that one of the engines was working, one wasn’t, but the bilge pump was working. So in this circumstance the decision was made it was safer to let the boat continue to motor on under escort.

But a lot of these boats are designed for inshore work. And when they hit the high seas, when there’s two metre waves, people die. That’s why this issue is so important. That’s why it’s important that we work together to solve it.

QUESTION: How many crew were on board? Have they been identified?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Three Indonesian crew.

QUESTION: Was the boat seen to be seaworthy.. with that many people on board?

DAVID JOHNSTON: We don’t know the answer to that question. Partly because its configuration doesn’t look like it’s designed to carry people. It carried cargo, but its capacity – the standards by which it would be built and which we might judge it would be quite different.

QUESTION: It sounds like conditions out there are pretty rough at the moment. [Indistinct] …other asylum boats in distress?

DAVID JOHNSTON: At the moment we continue to bring people in that we have recovered from this incident yesterday, but we are not currently attending or responding to any other particular vessels.

QUESTION: Were you approached to by the Prime Minister to be Immigration Minister?

JASON CLARE: I think this might be the fifth time I’ve answered this question. But I’ll give you the same answer. I had a conversation with the Prime Minister and I asked him to be Minister for Home Affairs, and Minister for Justice. The reason for that – you remember, two weeks ago I announced far reaching reforms to Customs and Border Protection to aggressively tackle and weed out the corruption that has been identified in that organisation as well as modernise it, make sure that it is ready to cope with the challenges of the next two decades, big increases in cargo and big increases in passengers coming through the airports.

I made the case to the Prime Minister I wanted to stay in that job to get that job done. I had developed reforms over the last 18 months. Now the hard part comes of implementing those reforms and I made that case to the Prime Minister and am very grateful that he agreed. OK, thanks very much.