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Queen's birthday honours: medal for MH370 search head John Young

Other ACT recipients:

Canberra public servant John Young was at his local supermarket in Isaacs recently when the shopkeeper, a migrant named Benny, took him aside.

"He said to me, 'John, I've been talking with my friends in China, and they've all asked me to say thank you to Australia'," Mr Young said. "It was special to hear that."

In March, Mr Young, the head of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's emergency response division, became the public face of the hunt for missing Malaysia Airlines jet MH370. His news conferences were watched by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

His moment in the spotlight was brief – former Australian Defence Force chief Angus Houston later took over the international co-ordination centre – but Mr Young and his team garnered plenty of praise for their time in charge of the massive search effort.


"The public information side – the global interest – was something we had never seen before," Mr Young says.

Australia's role was initially routine: the government sent aircraft to help immediately but the plane was believed to have gone missing well outside Australia's area of responsibility.

"We were watching with professional and personal interest," Mr Young says. "And then, on 17 March, the focus suddenly switched to the southern hemisphere.

"When the Prime Minister made his announcement that Australia would help, there was a brief pause when everyone looked around the room and asked. 'Well, [whose responsibility] is that?'

"We realised it was us: AMSA. So we got on the front foot and did our jobs."

Mr Young is one of 14 bureaucrats from Canberra and the ACT region to be awarded a public service medal on Monday.

His involvement in the MH370 search is how the public knows him, but it is just one part of his citation.

For almost a decade, Mr Young led the authority's emergency search team through a tumultuous period, working with the military and customs "to minimise loss of life associated with the vexed issue of asylum seeker vessels at sea", the citation reads.

"I've seen some highs and lows in that time," Mr Young says.

"The issues that have really stretched us have been asylum seekers' vessels and the Malaysia Airlines plane. We also had the Russian ship that became stuck in the ice in January, which stretched us in a different way."

The authority occasionally cops criticism over the deaths of asylum seekers at sea and Mr Young says those incidents can be very emotional for staff.

"But the criticism tends to be isolated. We receive lots of positive feedback most of the time from people who are grateful that we saved them," he says.

"So we see the criticism in its context. We operate without perfect information. And, with asylum seekers, we're in direct contact with frightened people, or people who are claiming to be in trouble.

"It can be emotional and stressful for the search and rescue centre people, but they all do a fantastic job."