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Zahra (6), Fatima (7) and Eman (9) - the daughters of Sondos Ismail and Ahmed Alzalimi -  three of the 146 children who lost their lives when the vessel that has become known as SIEVX foundered in international waters en route to Christmas Island on 19 October 2001.
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Stop Stonewalling & Answer The Question!

by Marg Hutton
21 July 2002

There are two topics that cause the Prime Minister's blood pressure to rise - the first is the leadership of the Liberal Party, the second is SIEVX.

When the PM appeared on the 7:30 Report on 15 May, Kerry O'Brien took the opportunity to persistently question him about the leadership, Howard went into broken record mode and replied to each of O'Brien's questions with 'I don't have anything to add'.

The only other topic that has elicited a similar obstinate response from John Howard in recent times is SIEVX.

At Sydney Airport on 30 June as he was about to depart on his European tour, Howard fielded questions on SIEVX from Margo Kingston. Here is the transcript:


Are you now able to advise where you got the information on or before the 23rd of October that SIEVX sank in Indonesian waters?


I haven't got anything to add to what I've said.


But you recall that I asked you this question last week and you said that you'd have to check.


Well I'm telling you, I don't have anything to add to what I've said.


So you're not able to advise -


I'm telling you I'm not adding anything to what I've said.


Why not Mr Howard?


Because I'm not adding anything to what I've said.


What's your reason for it?


I'm not adding anything to what I've said.

So what was it that the PM had already said on the matter, the querying of which seems to cause him as much angst as questions about a potential challenge to his leadership?

On 20 June, he answered the following question from Margo Kingston, just a few days after vital evidence had been leaked to the press from the Senate Inquiry showing that the Prime Minister's People Smuggling Taskforce had been advised on the morning of 23 October that SIEVX had likely foundered in international waters - not Indonesian waters as the PM had so strongly and persistently maintained throughout the federal election campaign:


Mr Howard, did the advice you received on or before October 23 on where SIEVX sunk, come from the people smuggling taskforce?


I'd have to check my recollection of that Margo. But my understanding is that the remarks I made on the 23rd of October, which you're clearly interested in were based on reports and also, you know, not only government reports but also media reports.

And what exactly was the nature of the remarks the PM made about SIEVX on 23 October - the day that Australia first heard of the tragic loss of life aboard SIEVX and the same day that the PM's People Smuggling Taskforce was advised that the 'vessel [was] likely to have been in international waters south of Java'? John Howard stated not once but five times in the course of a radio interview that the boat went down in Indonesian waters:
This vessel sunk in Indonesian waters. Now I am saddened by the loss of life, it is a huge human tragedy and it is a desperately despicable thing for the Leader of the Opposition to try and score a political point against me in relation to the sinking of a vessel in Indonesian waters. We had nothing to do with it, it sank, I repeat, sunk in Indonesian waters, not in Australian waters. It sunk in Indonesian waters and apparently that is our fault... Can I just make one other point in all of the interceptions that the Navy has undertaken, lawful interceptions we’ve undertaken, there’s been no loss of life, we’ve been very careful in relation to all of that. Now you’ve got 350 people apparently tragically died in Indonesian waters, we had nothing at all to do with it in any way and Mr Beazley is saying it’s our fault.
The following day, questions began to surface in the press as to where the boat had sunk. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that:
It was unclear last night if the boat had sunk in Indonesian waters, as the Prime Minister, John Howard, said yesterday.

A spokesman for the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, said there were reports that the boat had sunk close to Java, but he could not confirm if the accident happened in Indonesian or international waters...

A spokesman for the Indonesian Navy, First Admiral Franky Kayhatu, said Indonesia had no plan to mount a rescue operation in the area where the survivors were picked up.

"The boat sank outside Indonesia's water, near to the Christmas Island. I haven't got details of the accident, but it's clear that the migrants were saved by fishing boat," he said.

But these statements did not deter the Prime Minister from continuing to insist that the boat foundered in Indonesian waters. In fact he is on the record as having repeated that line a further five times between 23 October and 8 November. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] It was not until 8 months later, on 20 June that the PM finally acknowledged that he was not certain where SIEVX sank.

We demand to know who gave him the advice that SIEVX sank in Indonesian waters and why it overrode the contrary advice provided to his advisers on the People Smuggling Taskforce. Why is he continuing to refuse to reveal his sources? Is it because he knows full well that his advice was questionable?

Outwardly John Howard appears very calm and confident in his response to questions about SIEVX. But is he giving us a clue as to his inner turmoil by using the same tactics to rebuff questions about the government's role in the SIEVX tragedy as he uses in reponse to questions alluding to a possible premature tilt at the leadership?

The Prime Minister has the right to stonewall questions about the leadership - but it is contemptible that he chooses to use the same tactics to avoid answering a question about the sources of his information concerning the deaths of 300 women and children. Why won't he answer the question? What is he hiding?

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