A Certain Maritime Incident (the book is named after the Senate investigation into the matter) reads in large part like a ghoulish murder mystery. 353 asylum seekers, mostly women and children, lost their lives on a rickety boat, forced on at gun point by Indonesian police. Tony Kevin, a public servant for some thirty years (he served in the Prime Minister’s Department and was ambassador to Cambodia and Poland), has been obsessed with the boat’s sinking since those terrible events took place on October 19, 2001.
Could Australia have done more to help? Were we negligent in not keeping a tighter surveillance on the boat? These are the main questions that Tony Kevin asks. From the book:
‘Yet I am still searching for answers to the central moral question – why Operation Relex, with all its resources, could not or would not mount an air search for the people on SIEV X, even after the AFP-sourced report on 20 October. It seems clear that Relex did not really want to find them. There were operational incentives not to do so – rescue by the navy of 400 people up north near Indonesia would have seriously complicated an already stressed border-protection mission, and there would have been no thanks from the defence minister or the prime minister. Did Operation Relex learn from its unpleasant HMAS Adelaide and SIEV 4 experience at the hands of Howard and Reith to be ‘rescue averse’ in grey-area scenarios where it was under no legal obligation to search for possible SIEVs in distress? I think so.’
Any one who has read Miriam Wilkinson and David Marr’s Dark Victory will know that Howard saw fit to leave some 400 people on the Tampa, exposed to the elements, for two weeks. This included pregnant women. Or one pregnant woman. Remember that it was the government that contacted the Tampa and requested that the captain pick up those people – only once the boat had almost sunk. The Howard government is not exactly sympathetic to asylum seekers. The whole idea of the tough stance on incoming boats was to send a message out to the world: Don’t try to come to Australia. Indeed, pamphlets were even distributed warning that trying to come to Australia could result in death at sea.
A lot of this book is very heavy in complex detail. You are taken from agency to government department and back again. Who got what intelligence on what day, why it wasn’t passed on etc. etc. The overall picture is one of many, many question marks. And much stonewalling and overly careful answers of questions. Mick Keelty, when questioned by the senate, took in legal representation and sometimes spent up to five minutes in consultation with his legal help before answering the most simple question. Why all the secrecy? Tony Kevin even describes Jane Halton, head of the People Smuggling Taskforce, as ‘dancing’ through several days questioning. If the case of SIEV X is so clear cut, with nothing being hidden, why can’t the people being called before the Senate answer questions candidly?
To illustrate some of the absurdities of the case. John Howard declared that SIEV X sunk in Indonesian waters, but this has been proved to be false. The boat sank in international waters. Yet the official parliamentary record has still not been updated.
Margo Kingston put the question nicely: if Operation Relex provided some of the most beefed up surveillance of the seas to our north, why didn’t we pick up the boat and mount a search and rescue? Coastwatch received a report form an AFP agent in Indonesia on 20 October (I think, if I remember correctly) that the ship SIEV X was in dire trouble. Why didn’t we attempt to rescue it?
The spookiest part of the book for me is the descriptions, by survivors, of how on the night that the boat sank they were surrounded by 3 patrol boats that shone bright lights in their faces, then left. What was all of this about?
And how did Indonesian fishermen go some 60 kilometres out from shore and suddenly ‘discover’ the survivors. Were they given co-ordinates and told to go out and rescue them?
Going by the Howard Government’s record on the issue, you can’t help but tend to think that there has been negligence somewhere along the track. The Howard government would be the last people to lift a finger to help asylum seekers in distress.
I hope Tony Kevin keeps on with his thankless work. He is a brave man to plug away at a government so keen to forget the whole episode.
His website is at http://www.tonykevin.com/. Plus there is the site http://www.sievx.com/ run by Marg Hutton (it was trawled on a nightly basis by the federal police until the Australian’s IT reporter exposed what they were up to. The police then abruptly stopped. The site is mainly an archive on the subject of SIEV X, and only contains public documents. Why are they so paranoid??)