Interview with Geoff Hutchinson 720 ABC Perth – 21 June 2012

Topic:  Search and Rescue Operation

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: The Minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, joins me on the program.  Good morning to you.

JASON CLARE: Good morning Geoff.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Can you – you’ve spoken of the – a critical window of opportunity…

JASON CLARE: Yes.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: …to save more lives.  How long do you think you have?

JASON CLARE: I think we’ve got another twenty-four hours.  We’ve got thirty-six hours from when people go into the water, I’m told, to really have the opportunity to save lives.  The water temperature out there, I’m told, is twenty-nine degrees.  Sea state three is a bit rough. 

The advice I’ve got from Border Protection Command is that if people have life jackets or if they’re holding onto debris there is an opportunity to save more lives – which is why we’ve got more boats and more planes heading to the search and rescue area right now.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Indonesian authorities have confirmed that they were told on Tuesday that a boat in the area was in distress.  When did our own Maritime Safety Authority first make contact with the vessel?

JASON CLARE: Ten o’clock on Tuesday night.  At ten pm on Tuesday night we received a phone call from the vessel indicating that the boat was in distress.  And at that time we contacted Indonesian search and rescue and told them.  Australia’s Maritime and Safety Authority which received the call also advised Border Protection Command. 

About three and a half hours after that, in the early hours of Wednesday morning – 1:30 am – we received a further call from the vessel indicating that they were still experiencing difficulties.  At that time they advised that they were thirty-eight nautical miles south of Indonesia.  

The advice I have is that AMSA – the Australian Maritime Safety Authority – at that time told the vessel to return to Indonesia.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Okay, which clearly they didn’t do.  The first life rafts were dropped by a RAAF plane yesterday afternoon.  Is that right?

JASON CLARE: Yes, yesterday afternoon, a little after five pm.  We identified the vessel at about three o’clock yesterday afternoon.  One of our surveillance aircraft detected the vessel capsized at about three pm yesterday. 

We sent our P-3 air force aircraft to the area where the boat was identified as capsized.  It’s able to deploy life rafts. A bit after five o’clock it dropped those life rafts out of the plane and onto the water.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Okay.  When the Dash 8 arrived yesterday, can you describe the scene?

JASON CLARE: I can.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Yeah?

JASON CLARE: Yes, I can.  When I was advised of this yesterday afternoon I headed over to Border Protection Command’s Operation Centre in Canberra to get a briefing from the commanders in charge of this operation. 

I was showed photographs that were taken by the Dash 8.  It showed what was a small upturned boat with about 40 people all over the upside down hull of the boat with orange life jackets on waving at the plane, obviously anxious that a plane has arrived and hopeful that a boat would soon come to rescue them.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: My guest is Jason Clare, the Minister for Home Affairs, 1300 222 720 is our talk back number.  Our text 0437 922 720. It’s eighteen minutes to nine. 

Can you tell us whether the people onboard Wollongong and now safely at Christmas Island have been able to provide any information as to who they are – where they’re from?

JASON CLARE: I can.  You’re right.  Wollongong has now returned to Christmas Island.  My advice is that they’re transferring the people they rescued last night onto the island, and it’ll shortly head back to the search and rescue area. 

The advice I’ve received from Border Protection Command is that there were about 200 people on the boat, all male.  One of the survivors is reported to be a thirteen-year old boy.  Otherwise they’re all adults. 

The advice I have at the moment is that the people on the boat were from Afghanistan.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Okay.  The ABC’s Indonesian correspondent, Helen Brown, has been reporting that Indonesian authorities were, quote, confused about the information that came from Australia.  Have you had any contact with them to determine what it was they were apparently confused about?

JASON CLARE: When I was in the Operation Centre last night there was obviously the search and rescue effort for this boat, but there was also identified another boat off the coast of East Timor that was potentially in distress, so we focused on two emergencies at once. 

We sent a Dash 8 up to where that vessel was likely to be.  It showed no signs of distress.  It looks now like it had set off its emergency beacon.  That emergency is now being called off. 

Indonesian and Australian authorities have also been talking about another potential vessel from Sunday night.  I followed this up this morning with Border Protection Command.  Their advice to me just recently is that they have no information about another boat that’s in trouble at the moment.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Minister, people are rightly saying that today’s not a day for politics, but is it becoming more urgent that all sides of politics put aside whatever is perceived political advantage or the eye on the opinion poll, and genuinely seek to act in what is in this nation’s best interests and on behalf of those who keep embarking on these dangerous voyages?

JASON CLARE: Geoff, I think you made that point as well.  Today’s not a day for politics.  This is a terrible tragedy.  We’ve had two-hundred people die off the coast of Indonesia just in December.  We had eleven people drowned off the coast of Malaysia in February. 

We’ve got a search and rescue effort on now desperately hoping to save more lives.  At the moment we’ve confirmed that three adult men have died.  But we hold grave fears for many other people. 

My focus, like the focus of the men and women off the coast of Christmas Island right now, is the hope that we can save more lives.  There will be a debate about all of those issues, but that is a debate for another day.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Just before you go, a couple of people have called in asking why, given this accident occurred in Indonesian waters, that the boat and the rescue is focusing on Christmas Island and not a return to Indonesia?

JASON CLARE: Yes, it’s a good question, Geoff.  Let me explain why.  The search and rescue area is about halfway between Christmas Island and Indonesia.  Indonesia’s search and rescue area stretches all the way from Indonesia to Christmas Island. 

So this is happening halfway, about one-hundred-and-ten nautical miles north of Christmas Island and about one-hundred-and-nine nautical miles south of Indonesia.  So it’s right there in the middle. 

We’re in a position to act fastest to save lives.  That’s why we deployed our patrol boats yesterday afternoon as well as our aeroplanes, and as a result of that we know right now that at least one-hundred-and-ten people are alive.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON:Thank you for your time this morning.

JASON CLARE: Thanks very much.

GEOFF HUTCHINSON: Jason Clare is the Minister for Home Affairs.  When we come back we’ll take you to the jetty at Christmas Island.