Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Questions without Notice
Ms Britt Lapthorne
My question is to the Minister representing Minister for Foreign Affairs. I draw the Senate’s attention to the Lapthorne family and the distressing circumstances surrounding the investigation into the disappearance of their daughter, Britt, a Melbourne student, and the subsequent discovery of a body believed to be hers off the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia. The Australian government has faced criticism from this family over its failure in not notifying the family until five days after Ms Lapthorne went missing. The family is also critical of the lack of legal and consular support provided to the family and the role of the Australian Federal Police officer assigned to the case, who did not meet with the family until five days after their arrival in Croatia. A Croatian translator was withdrawn from the family a day after the Prime Minister promised that no stone would be left unturned in providing support to the Lapthorne family. Is the government satisfied that it left no stone unturned and helped the Lapthorne family in every way possible at this difficult time?
I thank Senator Fielding for his question. I can inform Senator Fielding that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Smith, called Mrs Lapthorne on Saturday, 11 October 2008 to offer his deepest condolences and sympathies to the Lapthorne family following the news that the Croatian police had identified the body found in Dubrovnik waters as that of Britt Lapthorne. I am sure all in this parliament would understand and sympathise that the Lapthorne family is going through an extremely difficult period at this time.
I can confirm that consular officers obtained a copy of the final pathology report from Croatian authorities, which was conveyed to the Lapthorne family. DFAT, consular and AFP officers assisted the family with understanding the contents of that report, which I can confirm was in Croatian. I can also say that consular officers will continue to provide consular assistance to the Lapthorne family in both Croatia and in Australia, including with arrangements to repatriate the remains back to Australia and, of course, assisting the Lapthorne family with arrangements for family members to return to Australia. The Australian Federal Police have offered to facilitate contact between a pathologist in Australia and the Lapthorne family to help them understand this autopsy report. The Croatian police have advised that the official investigation on this case continues to be responded to as a criminal investigation.
On receipt of information from an acquaintance of Ms Lapthorne that she was missing—that was on 19 September 2008—the Australian embassy in Zagreb immediately notified the Dubrovnik police. The Dubrovnik police advised that a search would be conducted but, because Ms Lapthorne was an adult and she had not been gone long, there was little it could do. The embassy sought updates from the Dubrovnik police on 22 September and 23 September 2008. The Dubrovnik police advised that Ms Lapthorne’s disappearance had been registered through Interpol in Croatia to ascertain whether she had come to the attention of other authorities. On 24 September—Australian eastern standard time—DFAT waived privacy considerations and contacted the family after Croatian authorities asked that we make enquiries about Ms Lapthorne on their behalf. In missing persons cases, we rely on local police investigations and advice on whether a person is in fact missing before we can advise the next of kin. As is the case with missing persons investigations in this country, privacy constraints prevent us from advising the next of kin immediately.
I am asked specifically about the Australian Federal Police. The AFP officer in Dubrovnik was a detective with a distinguished career—with, in fact, in excess of 25 years of policing experience. I am informed that he has done a professional job in assisting Croatian police with their investigations. (Time expired)
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. More than 70,000 Australians visit Croatia and millions more Australians—many of them young backpackers—head overseas every year to experience new cultures. When things go wrong, they rely on the Australian government and its resources to be there for them. Given the Lapthorne family believe they were not given adequate support by their government during an extremely difficult time, will the federal government mount an inquiry into the processes undertaken in the case of Britt Lapthorne with a view to how they can be improved in the future, and will the government table the report of its inquiry in the parliament?
Again, I thank Senator Fielding for the supplementary question. I indicate to Senator Fielding that that is something that I will obviously need to take up with Mr Smith, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I am not aware of what the minister’s intentions are here or what actions the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade may be taking on that particular aspect. I will undertake, Senator, to establish that from the minister and inform you accordingly.