Friday, February 5, 2010

Thank God for stroppy democracies

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 3.)

WHAT a shocking and tragic picture has emerged from the inquiry into the sinking of the Tongan ferry Princess Ashika.

Reports present almost a caricature of the archetypal Pacific Island backwater where complacency, lethargy, deference to authority, lack of initiative and fear of upsetting important people combined with catastrophic results.

There is even an element of what might be called the Bwana Syndrome, in which expatriate white men of dubious ability enjoy being big fish in a small pool.

In the unlikely event that you’ve forgotten the details of the Princess Ashika sinking, let me remind you.

The decrepit, 37-year-old ferry sank last August while on a voyage from Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital, to the Ha’apai island group. It was making only its fourth trip in Tongan waters.

Of the 74 who drowned, 29 were women and 12 were children. All the survivors were male.

It’s clear there were innumerable opportunities to prevent this tragedy, starting with the ill-advised decision to buy the patently unseaworthy ship. But at every point where people in authority could have applied prudence and common sense, instead a casual fatalism and reluctance to act prevailed – either out of complacency, penny-pinching or fear of angering the bosses.

The Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, which operated the ferry for the Tongan government, dispatched its manager, New Zealander John Jonesse, to buy a ferry in Fiji despite Mr Jonesse apparently having little or no maritime experience. He got the Princess Ashika for $400,000 and reportedly considered it a bargain.

Evidence given to the commission indicates Mr Jonesse, a former schoolteacher who changed his name from Jones, had got his job with the corporation after only one formal interview and without references.

Mr Jonesse was on the corporation’s board with a former Scottish deputy transport commissioner, a lawyer who boasted the grandiose title of Lord Dalgety of Sikotilani, and a Tongan chairwoman who, in the three years she had been in the position, had reportedly never sent an email or letter on corporation business.

It later transpired that Dalgety, the corporation secretary, had spent 66 days staying in a five-star Singapore hotel on corporation business, for which he was paid a daily rate of $US674. So while the corporation was eager to procure a ferry on the cheap, no such constraints seem to have applied to Dalgety’s expenses.

The Princess Ashika wasn’t subjected to a survey before purchase and no independent valuation was obtained. The most recent survey carried out in Fiji had described the ship as “beyond repair” and with “uncontrollable corrosion”, but the survey report either was not seen or not acted on.

The ship had to turn back after taking on water on its delivery voyage to Tonga and when it finally arrived in Nuku’alofa, a team of Tongan marine surveyors compiled a six-page list of defects.

Not to worry – a “provisional survey certificate” was issued to allow the Princess Ashika to sail.

Only the day before the sinking, a former general manager of the Shipping Corporation inspected the ship for insurance purposes and concluded it was an “intolerable risk”, but did nothing to stop it sailing. This was literally an accident waiting to happen.

The same fatal complacency appears to have sealed the ship’s fate on the night of its sinking. Despite alarming incidents on its previous three trips in Tongan waters, including one in which waves smashed holes in the sides of the vessel, no one bothered to check liferafts and lifejackets or ensure that passengers were briefed on safety procedures.

On the fatal night, the ship began taking on water within hours of leaving port at 4pm. Yet the captain went to bed at 7pm, leaving the first mate in charge.

Even when water on the cargo deck was knee-deep and the ship was listing dangerously, no one roused the master. He was finally woken about 10 minutes before the ship sank. It was only then that passengers were alerted to the imminent danger, but it appears to have been too late.

The captain admitted to the inquiry that he knew the ship was unseaworthy but he sailed because that was what the corporation wanted.

The reluctance to act continued even after the sinking. The New Zealander who heads the Tongan police, Chris Kelly, didn’t learn of the tragedy till his daughter texted him the next morning. Kelly’s deputy knew of the sinking at 1.10am but didn’t tell his boss because he didn’t want to bother him.

Instead he directed emergency operations from his bed, evidently sleeping between calls from his subordinates.

It subsequently transpired that a Tongan fishing boat skipper ignored a distress flare from the Princess Ashika because he thought he was short of fuel and didn’t have the right safety equipment. Survivors were picked up later by another vessel.

The shambling incompetence continued the next day. Mr Jonesse came to a briefing with a manifest recording only 79 names rather than the 128 who had been on board. The manifest didn’t even name the ship correctly, calling it the Olavaha – the ferry the Princess Ashika had replaced.

All in all, reports from the royal commission’s hearings present a picture of a terrible tragedy unfolding in slow motion. The bumbling incompetence, amateurism and complacency would have been comical if the outcome hadn’t been so utterly appalling.

The Tongan people have every right to be very angry, but probably won’t be. They are a passive, respectful people who didn’t seem offended even when their worse-than-useless king, immediately after the sinking, flew off to Scotland to attend the Edinburgh Tattoo rather than remain at home with his grieving subjects.

Are there any lessons to be learned from the terrible fate of the Princess Ashika and its doomed passengers? Probably none that we didn’t know already. The tragedy confirms that hierarchical societies produce a culture of deference where people do what they are told and are reluctant to speak out or take the initiative for fear of stepping out of line.

Thank God for stroppy democracies.


Baz said...

A shocking chain of events. The King of Tonga is a pantomime buffoon.

Karl du Fresne said...

"Pantomime buffoon" ... what a terrific phrase. Wish I'd thought of that.

Baz said...

Crikey. Praise indeed Karl!