Department gets $242k fine over Malu Sara


THE Federal Court has slapped the Immigration Department with the maximum fine of $242,000 after finding it breached its duty of care to five people who died on a government launch in the Torres Strait five years ago.
The proceedings were brought by Comcare, the federal work health and safety regulator, which investigated the sinking of the Malu Sara and found ``comprehensive failures'' by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
Deficiencies were found in the department's systems for procurement and contract management of the vessel, as well as its use.
``Many reasonably practicable steps were open to DIAC to prevent the tragedy but these were not taken,'' Comcare general manager Neil Quarmby said yesterday.
Separate proceedings had been initiated against the boat manufacturer, Subsee Explorer Pty Ltd, operated in Cairns by Don Radke.
The finding is expected to expose the department to massive compensation payouts to the families of the victims.
The court finding follows an Australian Transport Safety Bureau statement three months ago acknowledging that rescue authorities could have averted the tragedy.
The ATSB said evidence on the Malu Sara's seaworthiness had not been passed on, and the ``mistaken assumption'' that a well-equipped rescue helicopter was not available had contributed to the failure to save the lives of the two Immigration staff and three passengers on board the launch when it foundered in Torres Strait in October 2005.
The initial report laid the blame almost exclusively on the skipper, Wilfred Baira. He had been instructed to undertake a 74km journey from Saibai Island, near the maritime border with Papua New Guinea, to Badu Island, even though he was unlicensed and untrained on the vessel and had no navigation aids on board.
The order was given by Immigration Department official Garry Chaston, who knew that earlier that day the Malu Sara had been taking water. He was responsible for purchasing the vessel and knew it had no navigation equipment, not even a basic chart or global positioning system.
Mr Chaston has been allowed to resign from the department and retire with full superannuation and leave entitlements, and no charges were laid against him or the builder of the unseaworthy vessel, Mr Radke.
Those on the stricken vessel, including a five-year old girl, perished despite the skipper making more than 80 satellite telephone calls, the majority of which told of him being lost at night in heavy seas.
The Queensland police officer who handled the radio messages, Sergeant Warren Flegg, did not consider it an emergency until after Mr Baira said the vessel was actually sinking.
Even then it took more than eight hours for a search to begin. No sign of the vessel has ever been found.
Queensland Coroner Michael Barnes, who presided over the 2008 inquest into the deaths, said the sinking was ``a foreseeable and totally avoidable disaster that resulted from official indolence and incompetence''.