2008 is an auspicious year for those who are concerned about the unanswered questions surrounding the sinking of SIEVX. With a new Labor Government, Senator John Faulkner as Special Minister of State and the return of Jacinta Collins to the Senate mid year, the time is ripe for action on SIEVX. In Opposition, Faulkner & Collins were responsible for many of the probing questions put to the Howard Government and its agencies concerning the people smuggling disruption program operating in Indonesia and the sinking of SIEVX and both have spoken out on the need for a judicial inquiry into these matters.
In October 2001 353 asylum seekers drowned trying to get to Australia in an area of ocean that was patrolled daily by Australian border protection surveillance aircraft. Those who lost their lives were mostly women and children, many of whom were desperate to reunite with husbands and fathers already here.
There has been no official inquiry into this horrific tragedy other than the limited examination by the Senate Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident (CMI). The Howard Government took no action on the first recommendation of the CMI Report for a judicial inquiry into people smuggling disruption activities undertaken in Indonesia by Australian and Indonesian police. It also ignored the subsequent Senate motions which specifically called for a broad ranging judicial inquiry into disruption activities and the sinking of SIEVX. (1, 2, 3)
The lack of a comprehensive inquiry has allowed for the proliferation of theories that go well beyond the evidence – that the Australian Navy watched people drowning in the water but failed to rescue them or that the boat was deliberately sabotaged. The sinking of SIEVX will always remain clouded in suspicion with the truth lost in a fog of myth, contested claims, obfuscation and denial unless and until there is a full powers independent judicial inquiry into this matter.
With the election of the Labor government five weeks ago, the SIEVX tragedy can finally get the attention it warrants.
In Opposition, the ALP repeatedly expressed its anger and frustration with the Howard Government’s inaction, moving a Senate motion criticising inconsistencies in government evidence to the CMI Committee and calling for a full powers judicial inquiry into the peoples smuggling disruption program and the sinking of SIEVX and supporting Greens and Democrats Senate motions on the subject.
The late Labor Senator Peter Cook, chair of the CMI Committee, spoke out in Parliament about inconsistencies in the evidence provided to the CMI Committee when a key document concerning the sinking of SIEVX - the DFAT cable of 23 October 2001 - was provided to the Senate seven months after it was requested and four months after the CMI Report was published.
Labor Senator Jacinta Collins vigorously questioned the authorities concerning SIEVX over several years and referred to SIEVX twice in her valedictory speech to the Senate in 2005, identifying it as the issue which had most effected her emotionally as a Senator.
Senator Faulkner tenaciously pursued the Australian Federal police and other agencies in the CMI Committee and later in Senate Estimates concerning the people smuggling disruption program and vividly expressed Labor’s concerns in the climax to a series of three adjournment speeches to parliament in September 2002:
This is the deeply concerning aspect of disruption. How far has it gone? What activities are acceptable; what are not? Who carries them out? Who pays for them? What accountability and control mechanisms are in place? Who authorises these activities? What is the effect of these activities? What, if any, consideration was given to questions of the safety of lives at sea? ...
And what about the vessel now known as SIEVX, part of the people-smuggling operation of the notorious people smuggler Abu Quassey? That vessel set sail on 18 October 2001 and sank on 19 October 2001, drowning 353 people, including 142 women and 146 children. Were disruption activities directed against Abu Quassey? Did these involve SIEVX?
I intend to keep asking questions until I find out. And, Mr Acting Deputy President, I intend to keep pressing for an independent judicial inquiry into these very serious matters.
At no stage do I want to break, nor will I break, the protocols in relation to operational matters involving ASIS or the AFP.
But, those protocols were not meant as a direct or an indirect licence to kill.
Australia has a moral obligation to address these unresolved questions swirling around SIEVX and the people smuggling disruption program - for the grieving survivors and relatives of victims and for people of conscience who are concerned that Australia may hold some responsibility for the tragedy.
With Labor in power it now has the opportunity to clear the fog and reveal the truth by establishing the full powers independent judicial inquiry that that it has so long called for.
A letter to your local federal member of Parliament will let the Rudd Government know that the electorate is looking to it to finally clear the air on SIEVX.