Saturday, September 10, 2011

ANOTHER Collins submarine goes close to disaster through equipment failure

The story below does not mention the Dechaineux incident but I will

JUST after midnight off the coast of Perth, navy submarine HMAS Farncomb was slicing below the surface of a rough sea when its engines cut out.

For the 60 men and women aboard the Collins-class boat, the next few minutes would be among the longest of their lives. Like a Hollywood thriller, the sailors found themselves grappling with a double engine failure followed by a terrifying, powerless descent towards the bottom of the Indian Ocean, stemmed only by the cool actions of a veteran commander.

This real-life drama, which took place at 12.30am on August 23 about 20km off the northwest coast of Rottnest Island, was not revealed by Defence at the time. When quizzed by The Australian the following day, officials gave only a brief, sanitised version of the incident, omitting key facts while praising the competence and training of the crew for following "standard operating procedures".

Many of the Farncomb's crew are far from relaxed about what took place under the Indian Ocean that night. "I said to myself, 'I'm gone, I'm dead',' one recalled thinking as the powerless submarine began to slide towards the ocean floor. Another on the submarine has told friends: "When we started going down, I just tried to accept it and make peace with myself."

In their eyes, the Farncomb incident came uncomfortably close to being Australia's worst naval tragedy in almost 50 years. Defence denies this, claiming crew had "positive control of the submarine throughout the incident".

An investigation by The Weekend Australian reveals discrepancies between Defence's official account and first-hand accounts now circulating in Perth from the Farncomb's crew.

What is undisputed is that Farncomb was conducting operational training in the waters northwest of Rottnest Island soon after spending a month in dry dock where it had its emergency propulsion unit replaced. In charge that night was veteran submarine commander Glen Miles, a ruddy-faced archeology and rugby enthusiast who once served on the old Oberon submarines and who was dux of his submarine officer's course. Also on board was a Sea Training Group assessing the crew's competence.

Shortly after midnight, the Farncomb was gliding at a periscope depth of 20m while undertaking a routine known as "snorting", where air is drawn into the submarine to run the diesel motor in order to recharge the boat's batteries. At 12.30am, without warning, a fault in the control switchboard of the submarine's electric motor caused the motor to stop. "Propulsion failure, propulsion failure" rang out across the Farncomb's address system, as crew ran to emergency stations.

Propulsion failure in a submarine is both uncommon and serious, but it is usually quickly offset by a procedure that allows the motor to be restarted in emergency mode. Faced with a powerless, slowing submarine in a rough sea, Commander Miles ordered the submarine to glide down from its depth of 20m to 50m in order to assess the problem.

It was a bad time to lose propulsion because it meant the submarine had to stop snorting. When snorting stops, a submarine instantly becomes much heavier because the snort masks and exhaust, which are outside the hull, fill up with water.

Normally the submarine balances this extra weight by pumping out compensating water, but this takes time. So Commander Miles suddenly found himself in charge of an overweight submarine with no power, sliding south.

By the time the Farncomb reached its desired depth of 50m, there was more bad news. Despite the frantic efforts of crew, they could not get the emergency mode of the main motor to work. Defence said this week: "The reason for delay in restoring propulsion in emergency (mode) remains the subject of a technical investigation."

Commander Miles faced a full-blown emergency. He had lost both his engine and his emergency back-up.

Defence declined to tell The Weekend Australian how deep the Farncomb sank, saying only that such details were "not openly discussed".

According to several crew members' versions, the Farncomb slowed to a virtual halt, tilted nose up and began to slide backwards towards the ocean floor. The tilt was so steep that sailors eating in the mess room had to grab their dinners as they slid off the table. Those in the sleeping quarters found themselves "on top of each other".

In the control room, Commander Miles was not panicking, but was watching the sliding depth gauge hoping that the propulsion motor would restart before the Farncomb sank too deep. He knew that, as a last resort, he could take the dramatic step of blowing the submarine's ballast tanks to stem the descent.

In those long, agonising seconds - perhaps a minute or more - as the submarine kept sliding towards the seabed, some of the Farncomb's crew started to consider the unimaginable. The submarine is believed to have been operating in more than 1300m of water off the continental shelf. This meant that if they continued to sink, the water pressure would crush the submarine and its crew long before they hit the seabed.

Their fate would have mirrored the 129 men of the US navy submarine USS Thresher, which was crushed by water pressure when it sank in the Atlantic Ocean during deep diving tests in 1963.

Crew accounts of how deep the Farncomb sank differ. The consensus is that it plunged to between 150m and 190m. If so, this is uncomfortably close to the submarine's permissible deep diving depth, the actual figure of which is classified.

At some point during the Farncomb's powerless descent and without any sign of life from the motor, Commander Miles ordered a partial blow of the submarine's main ballast in which air expels water from the ballast tanks, making the boat lighter.

"Because the submarine was still heavy as compensating water was being pumped (out), the commanding officer chose to blow main ballast to arrest descent," a Defence spokesman said.

What happened next depends on whose account you believe. Defence says that the initial ballast blow stemmed the descent and that the Farncomb actually began to slowly rise. Some crew members maintain the submarine was still sinking, although at a slower rate.

Either way, Commander Miles then decided to take the most drastic step available to a submarine commander: to order a full emergency blow of all ballast tanks. "That was the last resort available to the crew at that time and if it did not work, there would have been no hope for them," one source said.

To the enormous relief of its crew, the plan worked and the Farncomb - powerless, overweight and stricken - began to rise at last. Once back on the surface and with no further ballast to blow, Commander Miles ordered the crew to try again to get emergency propulsion back. This time, they succeeded, regaining emergency propulsion and the Farncomb was able to limp back to Fremantle.

Navy argues that Commander Miles was not completely out of options because there was an autonomous Emergency Propulsion Unit on board that was manned during the incident but was not activated.

Navy claims the EPU "would be sufficient to maintain control of the submarine in such situations". Submarine experts dispute this and say that, if this was so, why did Commander Miles not use this option rather than order the more drastic blowing of all ballast tanks.

"The EPU is only designed for surface propulsion and there is no way that it could have controlled a 3000-tonne submarine heading backwards towards the seabed," said one expert, who asked not to be named.

The incident will not help the troubled reputation of the Collins-class fleet, which has been plagued by technical problems, but it will be seen as good example of the ability of a well-trained crew to get out of sticky situations.

When asked this week by The Weekend Australian how serious the Farncomb incident was, Defence avoided giving a direct answer, saying only that "standard procedures were employed to recover from this propulsion failure while snorting". "These procedures are regularly exercised," Defence said.

The Farncomb has been repaired and is now back at sea, but at least one crew member, an engineer, is said to have stayed behind in Perth to deal with the stress of what happened on August 23.

As one submariner put: "This (incident) shows that even when things go wrong on a submarine, there is usually a way to get out of trouble. "But those blokes would have been very glad to get home."


Union fraud

A HEALTH Services Union official has lodged a complaint with NSW Police alleging "systemic and organised fraud within the HSU, including the procuring of secret commissions and corrupt rewards from suppliers and contractors".

The Herald revealed yesterday that the national president of the union, Michael Williamson, and the federal MP Craig Thomson, formerly the general secretary of the union, were given credit cards by a big supplier to the union.

John Gilleland, who is paid $680,000 a year to produce the union's newsletter, Health Standard, has previously given Mr Thomson and Mr Williamson credit cards attached to his American Express account. This year, Mr Gilleland's wife, Carron, told union officials that Mr Williamson had "run amok" with the credit card and used it to pay for a variety of things, including wines for his cellar and his children's private school fees.

The official who lodged the preliminary complaint yesterday has sought a meeting with police on Monday to provide a detailed statement. The shadow attorney-general, George Brandis, referred yesterday's allegations to the NSW Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione.

Mr Williamson, who is on the national executive of the ALP, issued a statement rejecting the allegations. He said he was seeking legal advice and had "no further comments on this matter".

Nicknamed the "million-dollar man", Mr Williamson is also the vice-president of the NSW ALP. He is on the boards of the State Government Employees Credit Union and First State Super.

Apart from his union salary, Mr Williamson's company, United Edge, bills the union hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for mobile phones and IT services.

His directorship of United Edge is not revealed to members in the union's annual reports.

Nor is it revealed in advertisements in the union newsletter where the company offers discounts on union membership in return for signing up to United Edge mobile phone plans.

Mr Thomson, who quit the union in 2007 to become a federal MP, is already under fire for using his union credit card to make more than $100,000 in cash withdrawals during his time as union boss, and using it to pay for escort services.

One union member recalled the astonishment in the head office in Melbourne years ago when Mr Thomson excitedly showed his new black American Express card. "It even came in a special presentation box," the unionist said.

The card, made from titanium, is the most exclusive of all credit cards and is offered by invitation only to those who spend more than $25,000 a month. The holder pays $4000 a year for having a titanium card.

Another former HSU official spoke yesterday of the free-spending ways under Mr Williamson and Mr Thomson. "If you went somewhere you didn't just buy a bottle of wine you bought the best bottle of wine. Everything was put on the union credit card," he said.

On most Thursdays, 10 or 12 people from the union would enjoy boozy lunches. The tab was always picked up by Mr Williamson, who put in on his union credit card.

"We would go to the Chinese down in Goulburn Street. We would start eating at 12 and we would still be drinking at 6 or 7 at night," the former official said. "We would sit around thinking, 'we're the union with money, with power'. We were quite conspicuous in the way we just consumed the members' money."

None of this behaviour was secret within the ALP, he said. " "When this was going on, the party in many ways lost its moral compass. No one of any ethical authority said to these guys: 'You are not doing the right thing'.


Is Labor now so toxic with the Australian people that it is unelectable?

The Labor Party's national conference is the brief moment every three or so years when the faceless men show their faces, all in one place, all together. Marshalling their forces of delegates around them, the union bosses and faction chiefs sat in serried ranks in the cavernous Sydney Convention Centre in April 2007 to listen to the man who had been elected their leader five months earlier.

After the ritual standing ovation, an expectant moment of complete silence fell as the most popular politician in Australia prepared to utter his first words as Labor leader to the true power of the party. He seemed a touch nervous. He decided to break the ice with an attempt at self-deprecation: "My name's Kevin, I'm from Queensland and I'm here to help."

It fell flat. It was also the key to Rudd's position as Australia's 26th prime minister, though the full meaning of it wouldn't become clear for three years. His words were the salutation of an outsider. Not geographically, but politically. He was not part of any union or factional power bloc. And the party was deeply conscious of it. He was there on sufferance.

A couple of years earlier, Bob Carr had come to the conclusion that Labor was a spent force, a relic, and could not hope to take power federally again. In a memorable punchline to his argument, he once drafted an epitaph for Australia's oldest political party: "It's game over, comrade," he told me after John Howard won the 2004 election and Labor returned Kim Beazley to the leadership.

But in 2007, Rudd led Labor to victory. Was Carr wrong? Or was Rudd just an aberration, giving the brief flicker of life to a party destined to die the moment it reasserted its true character? "The party got a boost from a cyclical trend against John Howard, and it took Kevin Rudd to dramatise it," Carr says today.

The cycle moved in Labor's favour, and Rudd was tolerated long enough to exploit the moment. The moment his polling weakened, the faƧ¸ade was ripped away.

The faceless men, after three years of sullen backroom acquiescence with the Rudd leadership, were suddenly visible again as they went to work installing Gillard in a coup so abrupt that the heir to the Chinese leadership, Vice-President Xi Jinping, on a visit to Australia at the time, could not comprehend it and yelled at his ambassador to Canberra:

"Why didn't you tell me this was going to happen?" The ambassador spluttered helplessly before the Australian ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, stepped in to save him during a meeting in Darwin: "Mr Vice-President, no one knew this was going to happen."

Yet there has been no shortage of warning for Labor itself. John Faulkner, a former national president of the party, spoke of Labor's deep cultural problems and likened the people who control the party to "the ship's captain steering for an iceberg." Since Faulkner made those remarks three months ago, what's changed? Nothing substantial, except that Labor's poll numbers have grown worse.

The longer-run trend is downward. Labor in NSW lost power in March with a punishing 25 per cent of the primary vote, a record low. Federal Labor has recently recorded 27 or 28 per cent in the Herald-Nielsen poll, a record low for either major party in the four decades of the poll's history.

For the first time, Labor faces not only the conservative Coalition on its right but a rising parliamentary party challenging from its left. The greatest beneficiary of Labor's travails, Bob Brown, the Greens leader, thinks it is too late for Labor:

"We are in a new age of politics in Australia where the Greens are becoming a major party and the reform party for the 21st century. The nearest analogy is the rise of the Labor Party a century ago … They will try to take some of the steam out of the Greens cooker, but they can't do what we can do because they're too tied to vested interests."

If Labor continues to stagnate and the Greens continue to build, Labor ultimately will lose its ability to contest elections as a stand-alone party able to govern in its own right. Indeed, that is exactly what happened at last year's election.

"We have shown we're not the Democrats," says Brown. "We have broken into the House of Representatives. We have the highest share of the vote for any minor party since World War II," 12 per cent of the primary vote. "We aren't there to keep the bastards honest" - the famous slogan of the now-defunct Democrats. "We're there to replace the bastards."

The chaos of the Gillard government's asylum-seeker policy is a case study in Labor's new torment on the political rack - Tony Abbott draws voters away from the right and the Greens from the left, ripping the left and right arms from the Labor support base and leaving a helplessly bleeding government in the muddling centre.

This is a new world for Labor. In the ALP of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, there was a simple rule for any electoral dilemma. Facing a choice of moving left or right, the no-fail electoral option was to move right.

Why? Because if Labor alienated voters on the right, they could storm off and vote for the Coalition. That hurt. But voters on the left were captive. Even if they voted for the Democrats or some other minor party, their second or third preferences would always bring their ballots back into the Labor column. That tactic no longer works. The default move to the right is now just as electorally risky as a move to the left. The Greens have demonstrated they now have the critical mass to take seats from Labor.

Is Bob Brown right that the Greens have supplanted Labor as the reform party of the new century? Has Labor exhausted its historic purpose?

"It was set up specifically to make the lives of working people better," says the historian David Day of LaTrobe University. "Workers' compensation, the age pension - but once these sorts of things are in place and society has become more bourgeois and Labor supporters have become more wealthy, Labor needed to reinvent itself."

And it did. Hawke and Keating transformed the economy, and with it they transformed the electoral alignment of the country. By deregulating the economy, they set in motion the market forces that restructured Australia's moribund industrial-protectionist economic-political complex.

The electoral implication? With the old economy went the old unionised workforce. Labor has never really adjusted to this reality. Keating said in 2005 that Labor never comprehended what had happened to it, never understood the market-based economic model that he and Hawke had created, never understood the new electoral reality that came with it. Hawke and Keating had created a new voter base for Labor, but the party threw it away:

"It's a fundamentally flawed strategy. The Labor Party has given up the middle-class, middle-ground, sole-employer, self-employed, small-business voter that Bob Hawke and I generated for it."

How? According to Keating, "because the Labor Party had already run away from our record." The truth is that Keating had become so personally unpopular that the party had no stomach to defend him, or his policies.

It was years after Keating had been voted out of power that the full political consequence of the remade economy became strikingly evident: during the Howard years, but largely because of Hawke-Keating reforms, the number of self-employed people outnumbered the unionised workforce.

In 1978, 57 per cent of the workforce belonged to a union. In 2009 it was 20 per cent. Last year, it stood at 18 per cent, according to the Bureau of Statistics, shrivelling before our very eyes.

How has Labor adjusted? In 2002 it cut the proportion of union delegates to its paramount body, the national conference, from 60 per cent to 50 per cent. Simon Crean drove this change, and he paid for it with his leadership. Fifty per cent is where it stands to this day. And 50 per cent, in laws governing corporate takeover, is the threshold of control. This union hold on Labor is exercised through the factions, wielded by the factional bosses, the faceless men.

This structure guarantees that Labor is increasingly unrepresentative with every passing year. The industry minister in the Hawke and Keating government, the late John Button, argued that this close affiliation was a "bad habit". Button, a wit and a highly effective minister, was factionally unaligned.

He wrote in a perceptive 2002 contribution to Quarterly Essay: "What the ALP and the union movement have most in common now is a membership steadily declining, and for similar reasons. Both have been slow to adapt to changing social circumstances; both share, in various degrees, an aversion to democratic member participation; both have hierarchies often seen as out of touch.

"The ALP and the unions are like two old mates waiting at a bus stop on shaky legs, leaning on each other for support, reminiscing about the past and hoping something will turn up; a bus, an ambulance or someone like Bob Hawke."

There is no one like Hawke; Rudd occupied the same stratosphere of popularity, but where Hawke came from the party's power centre, Rudd was and is on its power periphery. Rudd was its bus and it rode the Rudd phenomenon until it dispensed with the ride, but now Labor increasingly looks like it needs an ambulance.

Button pointed to the increasing disconnect between the union-controlled Labor Party and the union-free voters that the new economy was creating: "Membership of unions in the growth sectors of the economy - information technology, telecommunications, electronics, biotechnology and financial and business services - is low, sometimes tiny."

What should Labor do? In their review of Labor after the 2010 election, three of the party's wise men - Carr, Faulkner and the former Victorian premier Steve Bracks - recommended opening up the party to allow its ordinary members to have a bigger voice, diminishing the dominance of the unions and the machine men.

Faulkner has publicly despaired at modern Labor's state of permanent genuflection to the focus group, made up of uncommitted voters hand-picked for their lack of belief. Faulkner has decried the mentality of a party that puts more emphasis on the views of the people who do not belong to it than the ones who do.

These recommendations to democratise the party are supposed to be debated at the Labor national conference in December. But who controls the conference? The same people that Faulkner, Carr and Bracks want to yield up some of their power.

A former education minister in the Wran government, Labor's Rodney Cavalier, a political historian, has said of Faulkner's calls: "What John said was unassailably correct. There's probably fewer than 30 people in the whole of NSW who would disagree with him, but every one of those 30 people has a vested, material interest in seeing [reform] defeated.

"If John Faulkner's thoughts come to pass, it is the end of the political careers of most of our senators and a good number of lower house members and machine operatives. They cannot survive with the oxygen of democracy."

He is talking of the faceless men and, in particular, the Right faction bosses and union leaders who dominate the party's decision-making machinery. The chance that they will surrender control? "Zero," says Cavalier who, like Faulkner, is from the party's Left faction.

There has, however, been some reform already along the lines recommended by the review. In NSW, for instance, the Labor state conference has agreed to allow 48 of its 112 delegates to the national conference to be chosen by its branch members instead of the unions and head office. "This shows that, even in the belly of the beast - the NSW Right - change is possible," said a Left operative.

The catch? There are two. First, the 48 delegates will still constitute a minority of 43 per cent, and, second, the change will not take effect until the national conference after this year's. So the change seems to be mainly cosmetic, and, in any case, delayed until 2014. It may be change, but it's not enough to break the party free of its union-faction stranglehold. This deep institutional, structural change is the hardest. That's why it's probably the most important.

Other change is needed. The Liberals' pollster Mark Textor posed this question: "You've got to ask: what does Labor stand for? It's the most important thing in politics."

It's hard to answer at the moment. The Prime Minister tells us she believes in setting the alarm clock early and the value of work. Is that the best Labor can do? Belief is central to purpose and to appeal. Labor has a crisis of belief.

History counsels against the last rites for the Labor Party. The conservative New Zealand prime minister, John Key, recently suggested his Australian counterparts resist the temptation to write off Labor with its primary vote of 27 or 28 per cent. His party, the Nationals, slumped to a nadir of 20 per cent. Now they are in government.

Does Bob Carr still think it's game over, comrade? "There is a greater volatility, but I think it is recoverable. We have to counter the Greens by talking about how Labor can deliver Greens environmental ambitions, whether pricing carbon or saving forests, but with an economic edge. We have to be the party that wins on economic management. Can we straddle both? Absolutely."

His second key point is the centrality of the leader in revitalising a party. "The leader - and his or her office - really are the party, or at least a large section of the party. In the end it's the creativity of the leader who persuades the electorate that their side of politics is still relevant."

But changing leader is the easiest part, as Labor has demonstrated, time and again. It's a trick with diminishing returns. It was the casual and brutal dispatching of Rudd that has brought Labor to its greatest crisis since the Split of the 1950s and '60s. For a party in a crisis of belief, purpose and representativeness, a change of leadership by itself is pointless. Yet, with the collapse of popular trust and authority of Julia Gillard, a new leader - or perhaps an old one - may be the change that is the prerequisite to all other change.


Marriage and children

The middle class are OK but not so those at the bottom

It dawned on Paul Watson after his bucks party that of the nine mates in attendance eight had children but only one was married. "That's why there wasn't much talk of weddings," he recalls.

The 31-year-old data engineer from Marrickville had stumbled upon a phenomenon that has been highlighted in a controversial report about Australian families: an increasing number of children are being born out of wedlock.

The author of For Kids' Sake, Patrick Parkinson, a law professor at Sydney University, says the rise in ex-nuptial births and the prevalence of divorce and lone parent families are major reasons for a deterioration in children's well-being. The remedy, he argues, lies in strengthening relationships, in particular in encouraging people to get married and stay married. The nation needs a mass expansion of relationship and parent education courses, led by trained volunteers, he says.

But not everyone agrees with Parkinson's premise that life for children is much worse than a decade or two ago, and some see in his remedy just another example of middle-class welfare.

Michael Dunne, professor of social epidemiology at the Queensland University of Technology, says data from around the developed world, including Australia, shows that for most children, life is getting better, not worse.

An avalanche of notifications to child protection agencies has been prompted by mandatory reporting and greater sensitivity to children's welfare, but the actual proportion of physical and sexual abuse cases that are substantiated has declined, Professor Dunne said.

The same is not true for emotional abuse and neglect, so there is still plenty of work for child protection agencies, "but at the very serious end of child abuse there is no indication things have got worse".

Bullying of school children has declined dramatically since the 1990s, according to a study in 27 European countries and North America, he says, and there is no reason to believe the situation is different here. "There is no increase in nastiness to children that they're reporting," he says.

Bryan Rodgers, professor of family, health and well-being at the Australian National University, said the evidence showed Australians in their 20s reported less abuse and neglect than did the generation aged in their 40s.

This was despite younger people being more likely to have parents who were divorced or separated. "In the period where the likelihood of parental divorce doubled, kids were saying they were less likely to be abused or neglected," he said.

The director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, author of Delinquent-Prone Communities, pointed to a fall in most categories of crime over the decade, and a plateauing in assaults, as indication that parents are doing something right. Deaths from heroin overdose are also one-third of what they were in 2001. "I'm not saying it's not a good thing to have close family relations, and divorce can be highly traumatising, but pressing the panic button is unjustified," he said.

What we may be seeing, says Dunne, is a concentration of problems in a relatively small proportion of families, rather than the population-wide crisis that alarms Parkinson. In NSW, for example, the top 11 per cent of "frequently reported" sibling groups account for half the child abuse reports to Community Services.

And that's why Dunne calls Parkinson's plan for an exponential increase in family education courses as "middle-class" welfare.

What is needed, he says, are better interventions for seriously dysfunctional families.

"You don't see family life falling apart for the majority," he says, "but it is definitely under threat for those suffering multiple disadvantages."

Experienced social workers, such as Linda Mondy, of UnitingCare Burnside, say they encounter families with much more complex problems than 20 years ago. "What I've noticed is an increase in alcohol and other drug use, and domestic violence," she says.

Some drug users from the '80s and '90s have carried the habit from their youth into their parenting years, says Professor Richard Mattick, of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.

And increased alcohol consumption due to the switch to wine and higher alcohol content in beverages is a big problem for many families.

Life for some children has always been cruel. Are greater proportions suffering today? That can depend on the statistics used, experts say, while applauding Parkinson for trying to improve children's well-being.

Whether a focus on marriage, rather than say on alcohol abuse and domestic violence, is useful remains contentious.

For most, marriage is a logical step. Paul Watson, who marries Anja-Mia Woodward on October 2, after having lived together for five years, wants a public celebration of his commitment. He believes marriage can provide children with a sense of security. "It's not completely rational but it was something we felt was right," he said.


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