Last December, Senator Milne put a series of questions on notice to Ministers concerning SIEVX related matters. Earlier this week she received responses from Senators Ian Campbell & Chris Ellison, the Ministers for Transport & Regional Service and Justice & Customs respectively. These answers are lessons in obfuscation and evasion, fuelling the fires of concern that the government is determined to bury any information that would cast doubt on Australia's response to SIEVX in October 2001.
Today I will deal with the answer from Senator Campbell.
Senator Milne asked the Transport Minister a three part question about Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels (SIEVs).
The first part of her question asked how many rescues of SIEVs the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) had been involved in between 1 January 1999 and 31 December 2001.
Minister Campbell replied:
'AMSA undertook rescue operations in relation to the suspected illegal entry vessel 'Palapa 1' in August 2001 but had no operational involvement in relation to subsequent suspected illegal entry vessels.'
This answer is highly misleading as it avoids acknowledging the involvement of AMSA in an earlier rescue which is central to concerns about the people smuggler who organised the infamous SIEVX voyage.
We know from AMSA's own records that it 'assumed responsibility for the search' for a missing SIEV on 27 March 2001.
This vessel had broken down and been adrift for a week enroute to Christmas Island.
This SIEV was codenamed Gelantipy by DIMA.
And we know from several sources that Abu Quassey, the notorious people smuggler who organised the fatal SIEVX voyage was also the organiser of Gelantipy - the AFP issued a warrant in June 2002 for the arrest of Quassey for his involvement in the Gelantipy voyage (see QoN 55)
and Senator Ellison confirmed in a letter to me last year that Quassey was charged and convicted in Egypt for his role in organising Gelantipy.
So why has Senator Campbell failed to include in his answer to Senator Milne reference to Gelantipy as a SIEV in which AMSA had operational involvement?
Even more concerning is the fact that Campbell is not the first Minister to provide misleading information about Gelantipy. In 2004 Senator Vanstone wrote that:
There is no information available to my Department to indicate that Abu Quassey was associated with this venture [Gelantipy].
I believe that both these misleading answers concerning Gelantipy support a hypothesis that the government is intent on burying all information that would call into question Australia's response to SIEVX in October 2001.
The fact that Abu Quassey organised an earlier voyage to Christmas Island that required rescue at sea by Australian Search and Rescue (SAR) assets just seven months before SIEVX sank is highly damaging to the government's claim that it had no reason to suspect that Quassey's boat that sailed in October 2001 might require rescue.
I have written before [1, 2] of how I believe the CMI Committee was misled about an entry in the People Smuggling Taskforce (PST) Minutes of 18 October 2001. The PST entry in question states:
'Further prospective arrivals:
Intelligence re 2 boats with total 600 P[otential] U[nauthorised]
A[rrivals] expected at Christmas, with one possibly arriving today, a further 3 boats with total 600 expected at Ashmore, with earliest arriving Monday. Some risk of vessels in poor condition and rescue at sea. No confirmed sightings by Coastwatch but multisource information with high confidence level' [emphasis added].
Anyone who is concerned about the role played by the Australian government in the tragedy of SIEVX would suspect that 'some risk of vessels in poor condition and rescue at sea' is a reference to knowledge of the boat being in danger. But DIMIA witnesses to the CMI Committee told the Inquiry that this entry in the PST minutes had nothing to do with SIEVX or Abu Quassey but rather it referred to the organiser of another boat - presumably SIEV6 - which arrived at Christmas Island on the same day that SIEVX sank (CMI 2014-6).
As I have written before:
"The CMI Committee was reassured by DIMIA's evidence and cited it in the CMI Report as proof that the PST minute of 18 October did not refer to SIEVX:
'Contrary to some of the speculation based on the PST notes, the mention of "some risk of vessels in poor condition and rescue at sea" did not relate to SIEV X but, rather, the condition of the other organiserís vessels. Ms Siegmund mentioned that that particular organiser "had previously used boats in poor condition".' (CMI Report para 8.51 - see also paras 8.45, 8.46, 9.108 and 9.119 )
If the Committee had been made aware that a previous Abu Quassey vessel had required rescue only months before SIEVX sailed it is highly unlikely that they would have reached this conclusion. I believe they would have probed further about Australia's feeble response to SIEVX's failure to arrive."
Clearly very few SIEVs have been rescued by Australian authorities. Senator Campbell's recent answer to Senator Milne suggests that operational involvement by AMSA in a SAR event concerning a SIEV was a rarity. The Minister claimed that AMSA had only been operationally involved in one SAR event concerning a SIEV - that of Palapa. And as far as I am aware Defence's involvement in rescuing SIEVs prior to SIEVX included just one vessel - SIEV4, aka Olong.
We know that Quassey's earlier boat Gelantipy required rescue at sea. We also know that SIEVX had been described as in 'poor condition' by Coastwatch prior to Australian agencies professed knowledge of the sinking (see para. 8 of Rear Admiral Smith's letter of clarification to CMI Committee).
So it is extremely difficult to believe DIMIA witnesses who maintained that the PST reference to 'some risk of vessels in poor condition and rescue at sea' did not refer to Quassey's boat, SIEVX!
For the government to retain any credibility in this issue it needs to demonstrate on what basis it made the claim that the reference to a risk of rescue concerned SIEV6 and not SIEVX. Who organised SIEV6? Had any of the earlier vessels associated with this organiser required rescue? Was the organiser of SIEV6 involved in organising either the Palapa or Olong voyages? If not, then on what basis could the claim be made that the risk of rescue mentioned in the PST minutes concerned a people smuggler other than Abu Quassey?
And why is AMSA so reluctant to admit its involvement in the rescue of Gelantipy? What secrets might be revealed by the AMSA incident file on Gelantipy?