The Senate Inquiry into Flag of Convenience (FOC) shipping has continued in Canberra, with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection again under the spotlight.
Australian Border Force was called to re-appear after Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan last week questioned why the captain onboard the Sage Sagittarius, Venancio Salas Jr, did not warrant a red flag when he subsequently returned to work in Australian waters despite having admitted to selling guns onboard the vessel and was a person of interest in an ongoing NSW Coronial Inquest.
The coroner recently found two of those killed in 2012 onboard the Panamanian-flagged Sage Sagittarius met with foul play, while a third person found dead in Japanese waters was outside the inquest’s jurisdiction.
The evidence strongly suggested Captain Salas either caused or authorised the deaths, or knew what had happened.
“You have left me once more very concerned about the security arrangements in your agencies, if someone like Captain Salas does not qualify for a red flag,” Senator O’Sullivan said."You might not want to know, but I suspect that ordinary Australians would want to know when the Salases of the world are in our ports, whether he is gun-running or he is clipping the ticket while someone else is gun-running or he bought guns."G-U-N-S—I do not give a rat's arse where they are coming from or where they are going. We need to know when these sort of people are in our company."
This was only weeks after the Senator O'Sullivan's Government rejected the Senate Inquiry's interim report.
The failure of the Department of Border Protection and its Australian Border Force to monitor Captain Salas meant he was able to work on the Australian coastline through 2015 and 2016, despite the fact NSW Police wanted to speak to Captain Salas at that time.
Border Force officials this week sought to clarify their position, having only acted after journalist Owen Jacques from the Sunshine Coast Daily in Queensland) found Captain Salas and alerted the inquest.
Acting on that advice in early 2016, Australian Border Force officials subpoenaed Capt Salas and brought him in for two days of questioning.At last week’s Senate hearing, Border Protection bureaucrats confirmed Capt Salas did not have an "alert" on his name.That means there was no warning as he entered our waters.
ABF Assistant Commissioner Clive Murray said neither his agency nor the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) were in a position to investigate the deaths.
“ACBPS and later the ABF did not have any jurisdiction to investigate the deaths of the two individuals on the Sage Sagittarius,” Murray said in a prepared statement.
“While the ACBPS supported civilian policing in relation to the deaths at sea, the ACBPS focussed on the alleged smuggling of firearms, however, no evidence was found that supported that allegation.
“Salas signed off the Sage Sagittarius and legally departed Australia via Sydney Airport on 14 September 2012.
“Neither the AFP nor NSW Police indicated they had a need for Captain Salas to remain in Australia for investigative purposes and the ACBPS had no lawful grounds to prevent his travel."
However, the point of contention at the inquiry is the fact Captain Salas was subsequently granted a Maritime Crew Visa on 19 July 2013 and returned to Australia the following month as Master of the MV Kypros Sea.
The prepared statement says: "During 2014 and 2015 there was no request for an alert to be placed on Captain Salas.
“On 16 February 2016, the AFP and NSW Police, on behalf of the NSW Coroner’s Court, sought assistance from the ABF to issue a subpoena to Captain Salas for him to appear before the NSW Coroner.
"As a matter of procedure, the ABF raised an alert on the same day to notify the AFP immediately should Salas attempt to depart Australia without compliance with the subpoena.
“On 17 February 2016, ABF officers in Gladstone issued Captain Salas with the subpoena, he subsequently appeared before the NSW Coroner on the same day and left Australia on 18 February 2016.
“Again, neither the AFP nor NSW Police requested any further alerts be placed against Captain Salas and the ABF had no lawful grounds to prevent his travel.
“On 18 February 2016, the ABF alert was deactivated as Salas had complied with the directions on the subpoena and was free to depart Australia.”
Senator Jacqui Lambie and Senator Janet Rice then asked about whether there was now an interpol alert on Captain Salas.
Murray replied that ABF is not on the interpol committee – only police agencies such as the AFP.
“There’s another gap,” Senator Lambie replied.
Earlier, Murray said the ABF takes a “risk-based approach” to all cargo vessels entering Australia.
“In the 2016/17 year to date, there have been 15,715 commercial craft that have arrived in Australia,” he said.
“Of these, the ABF has searched 1,072."
Murray also clarified the ABF submission which said:
"Flag of Convenience shipping and threats to Australia: The Department notes that while a significant proportion of legitimate sea trade is conducted by ships with FOC registration, there are features of FOC registration, regulation and practice that organised crime syndicates or terrorist groups may seek to exploit. These features are:
• a lack of transparency of the identity of shipowners and consequent impediment to holding the owner to account for a ship’s actions; and • insufficient flag state regulatory enforcement and adherence to standards.
“I want to provide context to the statement made in our original submission to the inquiry that there are features of the so-called Flags of Convenience registration, regulation and practice that organised crime syndicates or terrorist groups may seek to exploit,” Murray said.
“This is of most concern where so-called Flags of Convenience ships are not in Australian waters but on international waters.
“There are no requirements whilst in international waters to report to the DIPB and the ABF, whereas all vessels entering Australian waters are required to provide mandatory reporting."