No helping hands for those in peril on the sea
Tony Kevin
Australian Financial Review

This week saw startling and politically important developments at the Senate 'children overboard' select committee.

On Wednesday, the Navy's maritime commander, Rear-Admiral Geoff Smith, sent a clarification letter seriously at odds with his previous testimony (April 4, 5, and 11). Smith took this action after high-level advice from Rear-Admiral Mark Bonser, commander of Australia's Coastwatch, that Bonser's testimony on May 22 would be inconsistent with Smith's earlier testimony.

Smith commands Australia's border protection exercise, Operation Relex, which began after the MV Tampa affair. Its mission is to deter and repel asylum-seeker boats from Indonesia.

The committee's mandate is to examine not only the children overboard affair but also broader issues relating to safety of life at sea in Australia's border protection operations. The latter is now firmly in the committee's sights.

Wednesday's testimony and letter revealed that the ADF system had access to Australian Federal Police intelligence reports from Indonesia on October 14, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22, regarding a small overloaded asylum-seeker boat crowded with people that left Indonesia for Christmas Island in mid October. This boat, codenamed SIEV X, sank on October 19 off Java. There were only 44 survivors: 353 drowned.

The tragedy became world news after survivors reached Jakarta (in an Indonesian fishing boat that picked them up on October 20, after nearly a day in the water) and told their stories to media on October 23. Smith's letter and Bonser's testimony reveal that no safety of life at sea action was ever taken by Operation Relex because the reports were not considered sufficiently conclusive that the boat had sailed until the final report on October 22.

On this day, Coastwatch advised Australian Search and Rescue, and the latter then formally informed the ADF that the boat was overdue. No Australian air surveillance was ever undertaken.

This is in stark contrast with earlier testimony. On April 11, Smith had testified that the Navy and Operation Relex did not know anything about this boat until the overdue notice on October 22. He also stressed that had the Navy known it would have been duty bound to undertake search and rescue operations as a highest priority. He said the nearest ship, HMAS Arunta, which was intercepting SIEV 6, would have gone to help survivors had it known anything. (Arunta, which also carried a helicopter, was 240 kilometres away.)

The worrying inconsistencies in earlier official testimony on SIEV X are now cleared up. It had beggared belief that Coastwatch knew about SIEV X's departure but Navy did not know. Now it's clear that the whole Operation Relex system and presumably also the interdepartmental task force chaired by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Foreign Affairs through its Jakarta Embassy had access to daily intelligence summaries of AFP [news agency] reports from Indonesia.

There is now a new and even bigger set of questions of accountability and proper conduct, that will lead inevitably to questions of accountability at the political level. I cannot believe that the Navy or associated agencies in Operation Relex, all imbued with the mariners' sacred safety of life at sea obligation, would have been so coldly indifferent and operationally negligent of the fate of this obviously unseaworthy boat, unless under intense political pressure to avert their eyes.

We know now about intrusive political micro-management of the Navy's interception of SIEV 4 in early October. It is reasonable to infer the same kind of intervention took place in regard to SIEV X: informally but unmistakably, the directive would have gone down: 'Don't worry about checking out this one, it's not going to get here anyway.'

It would have so easy to send up an Orion to look for SIEV X, any time after its first reported departure on October 23 and 24. Even if, as Navy now contends it left on October 19, it still had to round the western tip of Java or Panaitan Island on the most direct route to Christmas Island. That small window of sea could easily have been monitored by RAAF Orions, under maritime obligations which overrule national boundaries, until the boat or its wreckage was found.

The suspicion must be that Australian authorities did not want SIEV X to be found before or after it sank. The defence that there was not enough certainty to justify air surveillance is pathetically weak.

Navy should not carry the can for a government failure of compassion and decency. One way or another, the truth will out. As Senator Bartlett (the Democrat member on the committee) commented on this week, 'evidence appears to indicate massive indifference to the fate of these asylum-seekers'.

Tony Kevin is visiting fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at ANU and a former ambassador to Cambodia

Back to