Four years after the Malu Sara tragedy, the Immigration Department has finally said sorry to the families, friends and colleagues of the five deceased.
The Malu Sara, an Immigration Department patrol boat, sank in 2005 with the loss of five lives, including two immigration officials from the Torres Strait.
Department secretary Andrew Metcalfe made the apology in Senate Estimate hearings, after visiting the Torres Strait last week to mark the fourth anniversary of the tragedy.
“I would like again to acknowledge the department’s deep sadness at the loss of life and to record the department’s condolences to the families, to the friends and the colleagues of those who were lost and to the wider Torres Strait communities.
The department is deeply sorry that the tragic sequence of events that occured and the losses suffered by those affected by this avoidable tragedy”, Mr Metcalfe said.
Queensland coroner Michael Barnes earlier this year delivered damning inquest findings against the Immigration department and others over what he called a totally avoidable tragedy. The boat was launched in August 2005 by then Immigration minister Amanda Vanstone.
A terrible chain of events
Barnes found those who died were victims of a terrible chain of events, from the purchase of an unseaworthy boat to a flawed search and rescue effort.
When no hope came, the engines failed and water leaked into the supposedly watertight bilge faster than it could be pumped out, it is likely the boat capsized and soon sank”, he wrote.
“The wretched dread as a mother seeking to cling to her terrified child as they were dumped into the dark and wild sea is too terrible to contemplate…
It is likely that people passed quickly under the waves, however at least one poor soul struggled on in vain for a day. His hopes surely soared when search aircraft came into view, only to be devastated as they disappeared before he too sucumbed. A totally avoidable disaster was complete.”
The department has previously offer sympathy and condolences but never said “sorry” – and Andrew Metcalfe says the department will not allow what occurred to be forgotten. “We will in consultation with our staff continue to honour and remember those who died, Ted Harry, Wilfred Baira, Valerie Saub, Flora Enosa and Athena Enosa. Thank-you.”
Still no personal apology
Lawyer Laura Neil represents two families of the victims suing the department for compensation. She says the apology is a good sign, but she says the department has not contacted her clients to say sorry.
“We’re only talking about five families, we’re not talking about thousands of people, so I wouldn’t have thought it would take much effort for the phone to be picked up and a phone call made to the people involved.”
Ms Neil adds that saying sorry will not have any impact on the compensation claims.
“I don’t think it has any implication as such, I think it’s a nice gesture, but it is certainly not something we would construe as an admission of liability or anything of that nature.”
An investigation by the federal workplace regulator into the department and the former official Mr Gary Chaston will soon be completed.
The families of the deceased were disappointed earlier this year when the coroner recommended disciplinary action against Mr Chaston, but he resigned before any could be taken. Comcare has the ability to prosecute both.
Metcalfe has also vowed a similar tragedy would not happen again.
“The department has since made changes and improvements to its procedures to ensure such a tragedy never happens again, and that the welfare of our staff will always be paramount in our objectives.”