|On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the sinking of SIEVX it is deeply troubling to see both major political parties using the tragedy as justification for ramping up Australia’s harsh and punitive treatment of boat people. By citing SIEVX, both Labor and the Coalition are attempting to put a soft edge on their cruel bilateral policy of offshore processing by feigning humanitarian concern for future asylum seekers who they would have us believe need to be deterred from getting on boats because of the risk of drowning. No longer is it ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’ but ‘We will protect those who would seek refuge in this country by ensuring that they never come.’ To use SIEVX as a warning or a threat in this way is particularly odious given the suspicions of Australian culpability in the sinking that have never been fully investigated.
353 lives were lost on 19 October 2001 when SIEVX foundered. Most were women and children. We cannot know the exact numbers of people who have drowned attempting to come to Australia irregularly by boat but there is strong reason to believe that the deaths on SIEVX account for more than half the total asylum seeker lives lost at sea. (see table) So SIEVX stands out amongst the 500 or so asylum seeker vessels that have attempted the journey to Australia over the last 15 years, for both the sheer numbers aboard and for the huge number of lives lost. There was only ever one vessel that carried more passengers and that was Palapa that was rescued from sinking by the MV Tampa in August 2001. There are other disturbing aspects of the SIEVX tragedy that distinguish it from other drowning incidents involving asylum seekers.
A decade after SIEVX, questions of possible Australian complicity in the sinking remain unanswered. The boat set sail in the middle of the 2001 federal election a few days after John Howard’s People Smuggling Taskforce had discussed ‘beefing up’ people smuggling ‘disruption activity’. The full gamut of what exactly this ‘activity’ to disrupt people smuggling voyages involved remains shrouded in secrecy.
SIEVX went down in international waters south of Java in an area where Australia, under Operation Relex, was mounting a comprehensive surveillance operation. It is still not clear why SIEVX was not detected before it sank, or why it took three days before news of this massive tragedy became known. There has never been an official inquiry into the sinking of SIEVX but during the 2002 Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident (CMI) that investigated the Children Overboard Affair, and later during Senate Estimates, questions were also asked about SIEVX. In particular, it was Labor’s elder statesman, Senator John Faulkner, who vigorously pursued the Australian Federal Police and other agencies concerning people smuggling disruption activities in Indonesia. Faulkner questioned whether the disruption program may have borne some responsibility for the sinking of SIEVX. Indeed, the first recommendation of the CMI Report was for ‘a full independent inquiry into the disruption activity that occurred prior to the departure from Indonesia of refugee vessels’ (p.xx). Subsequent to the CMI Report, between December 2002 and June 2004, the Senate passed three resolutions reiterating the call for a judicial inquiry into the disruption program and issues surrounding the sinking of SIEVX. (1,2,3) Labor went to the 2004 Federal election with this as part of its election policy platform. But after the 2004 election Labor dropped this policy commitment.
Despite Labor’s change of policy, Senator Faulkner has never publicly resiled from his concerns about the the disruption program and its possible connection to the sinking of SIEVX.
Any doubts about the strength of Faulkner’s misgivings concerning the disruption program are dispelled by reading his three adjournment speeches to the Senate in September 2002. Reading Faulkner is one thing, listening to him speak is quite another. In the final two minutes of his third speech, Faulkner builds to an impassioned crescendo; with scathing fury he raises the chilling and confronting issue of sabotage of asylum seeker vessels including SIEVX, calls for a judicial inquiry and affirms his determination to get to the truth.
[Senator Faulkner's spine-chilling 'Licence To Kill' Speech
(Take particular note of the last 2 minutes)]
It is significant that on the seventh anniversary of the sinking of SIEVX, in the first year of the Rudd Labor government, a resolution was moved in the Senate by the Greens calling for Labor to make good on its commitment to hold a judicial inquiry into the disruption program and the sinking of SIEVX. This was voted down by Labor, but Senator Faulkner who had been in the chamber earlier in the day was later absent when this resolution was put to the vote. Labor Senator, Jacinta Collins who sat on the CMI Committee with Faulkner and who also firmly believes in the need for a judicial inquiry on SIEVX was similarly absent.
Another SIEVX related resolution moved by the Greens was voted down by Labor again in the Senate on Wednesday with neither Faulkner or Collins casting a vote.
As long as the SIEVX disaster remains uninvestigated and surrounded in a fog of suspicion regarding possible Australian culpability, then it is extremely cynical, if not morally reprehensible for Labor to use this tragedy as fodder for their political propaganda to demonstrate the dangers of attempting to enter Australia irregularly by boat. They have it in their power to remove the stench surrounding this issue by holding the long overdue inquiry that they pledged back in 2004.
When Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd in June 2010 she spoke of Labor losing its way and implied she’d put it back on track. But under Gillard Labor has more than lost its way – it has lost its heart.