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Sickening case of justice denied for five lost at sea

Date

Crispin Hull

A digital radio EPIRB personal emergency beacon.

A digital radio EPIRB personal emergency beacon. Photo: Kirk Gilmour

Seven years after the loss at sea of two Australian immigration officers and three others, the search for accountability for the families appears to be whimpering to an end after a Court of Appeal decision last week.

In short, the truth has been found, but justice has eluded the families of the dead people.

One of those drowned was the skipper of a Department of Immigration vessel who was ordered to sea by his superior despite the vessel not being properly equipped for open-water passage - no GPS and only an early-model EPIRB (Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacon).

It now appears the families will get nothing and no criminal charges will be laid against any individual.

The above account has deliberately left out a few details because I wanted you, dear reader, to picture the drowned immigration officers as white men in uniform operating out of Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.

If they had been, my guess is that all hell would have broken lose.

Media would have humiliated authorities and politicians into action.

But no. The dead men and three dead passengers - another man, a woman and her five-year-old daughter - were Torres Strait Islanders and their vessel, the Malu Sara, was plying between two islands in the Torres Strait.

They either drowned or were ''fatally attacked by marine life'', in the words of the coroner.

The officers were locally engaged ''movement-monitoring'' officers at the bottom of the departmental pecking order.

There is a sickening, incipient racism behind these events. Coroner Michael Barnes found that four hours after leaving Saibai Island (around 4pm on October 12, 2005) the skipper, Wilfred Baira, used a satellite phone to call for help because he was taking on water.

The calls were taken by Senior Sergeant Warren Flegg of the Queensland Water Police, who made light of the whole dire situation in his relaying of the situation to maritime search co-ordinators in Canberra.

The coroner found that the seriousness of the situation escaped Flegg.

Worse, the attitude of at least one person involved in the rescue ''was coloured by his perception that people in the Torres Strait habitually activate their EPIRBs when they are inconvenienced rather than in peril''.

Some authorities had corrupted the acronym to ''Empty Petrol, I Require Boat''.

The coroner found a litany of malfeasance.

He was highly critical of the tender process for the purchase of the boat in 2003 - at the height of the Howard government's wanting to be seen to do something about refugees.

It was also when the Howard government was keen on giving small business a go and cutting red tape.

Small business was to be given a chance to design and build a new type of craft to replace six Bermuda class boats.

During the tender process the requirement for a floatation test - fill the boat with water and make sure it still floats - was axed. And the wording for ''ships'' for ''inshore and offshore patrol operations in smooth and open waters in the Torres Strait'' was changed to ''vessels'' and changed to omit ''offshore'' and ''open''.

The Commonwealth took the cheapest tender. The boats were not up to the task.

The coroner found shortcomings in training, equipment and a myriad things to make him conclude the events were totally avoidable.

In the past week, we have seen a media frenzy over the chain of causation from a prank call to the Duchess of Cambridge's hospital to the suicide of a nurse who let the call through.

It was a very tenuous chain of culpability compared with what happened in the Torres Strait seven years ago. Wilfred Baira, his colleague and three others were sent to their deaths because, as the coroner found, ''several people dismally failed to do their duty over many months''.

One of the families has engaged Cairns lawyer John Bottoms to seek some justice - some prosecutions of individuals (where appropriate) and some compensation.

It has been a fruitless task to get any Queensland authority to act on the exposed truth.

The coroner refused to send the papers to the DPP and refused to give reasons for not doing so.

Last week, the Queensland Court of Appeal refused to force him, holding, bizarrely, that the refusal did not amount to a decision on the coroner's part and so it was not subject to a requirement for reasons or for judicial review. But even if the families had won this round, there would have been some big steps before any individual was brought to account.

As it happens, the boat manufacturer, Subsee Explorer Pty Ltd, was fined the maximum $240,000 in July last year after a Comcare action for workplace safety breaches, and the Department of Immigration was also fined $240,000 in late 2010.

The department's fine and its attendant costs was hollow and ineffectual from the families' point of view. It was money passing from one government department to another.

The fine imposed on Subsee also went to consolidated revenue.

The families await justice and compensation. Mr Baira had an extended family dependent on him but no immediate family fitting the Comcare definition of compensable dependant.

At least we know the truth - incompetence, political imperatives and culpable negligence. But justice and compensation seem elusive.

■ ■ ■ ■

I got a $400 electricity bill this week for our NSW coast house. On it was stamped in red: ''The NSW Govt estimates that federal carbon tax and green energy schemes add about $316 a year to a typical 7MWh household bill - see ipart.nsw.gov.au.''

I used the back of the envelope that the bill came in to find the figures did not add up.

For a start, the 7MWh a year is on the high side. My holiday-let place runs to only 4MWh. But let's not quibble. Let's accept 7MWh a year.

Well, Country Energy tells me that my latest 1MWh bill chewed up 0.97 tonnes of carbon according to the little graph on the back. Say, one tonne for 1MWh. That would mean the ''average'' annual consumer of 7MWh would chew up seven tonnes of carbon. But the federal carbon tax rates the carbon cost at $23 a tonne. Seven tonnes would be $161 - about half the estimate so confidently stamped on the front of the bill.

But we must add ''green energy schemes''. Country Energy does not have the green option like ActewAGL in Canberra. But the green cost would be similar. The green option is tiny - about $30 a year.

So we have an utterly misleading stamp on electricity bills going out in NSW blaming the carbon tax for greedy slugs by energy companies.

Worse.

There is nothing we can do about it because Country Energy is quite accurately repeating the lies of the NSW government, and the NSW government is not subject to the requirements of competition and consumer law.

Over to you Greg Combet.

www.crispinhull.com.au

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