Probe needed on drownings

Monday, 3 June 2002
Canberra Times

IN THE middle of October last year, a month or more after the Howard Government had determined on a policy of aggressive monitoring and repelling of boats leaving Indonesia with asylum-seekers on board, a grossly overloaded boat left Indonesia, heading, apparently, for Christmas Island. Its departure was reported to Australian maritime authorities, which had been warned about five days before of its likely embarkation. There were Australian Navy ships in the broad area in which the ship seems to have been sailing. But one and a half days after it set off, the boat foundered and sank. Over the next 22 hours, before Indonesian fishing boats came on the scene, 353 people drowned and only 44 were rescued. The Australian Government has said that at no time was an Australian Navy vessel closer than 150 nautical miles from the tragedy about four hours steaming time. Even then, had it been alerted, many might have been saved.

When questions were raised, initially in The Canberra Times by a former senior Australian diplomat, Tony Kevin, about the state of Australian knowledge of the boat, known here as SIEV-10, bland assurances were given that the Navy had had no knowledge of its movements until October 22, days after it sank. Then, it was said, Australian search and rescue authorities had listed the boat as overdue.

Later, it emerged that there had been any number of reports coming into the system from up to eight days previously. Intelligence had reported the departure on the probable date of it, and the seriously overcrowded nature of the boat, while at least three further reports over the days before the "boat overdue" message had commented on its passage. These reports, it seems clear, had been circulated not only to the Navy but to bureaucrats and others involved in Operation Relex, the politically directed campaign to repel boat people.

Defence Maritime Commander Admiral Geoffrey Smith has excused the lack of action on this early intelligence, saying it had not been thought definitive.

The lack of action seems puzzling. Even in more relaxed times, Australian maritime authorities maintain close surveillance over ship movements in the area, marrying patrols by Orions and coastguard authorities with Navy patrols, intelligence from the Australian Federal Police and other operatives in Indonesia, and signals intelligence. There are processes for coordinating the information gathering, and the response. These processes were in overdrive, especially in relation to refugee boats, during September and October. Somehow, however, this boat slipped, as it were, through the radar.

Was this negligence, incompetence or is the unthinkable possible that someone in Australia turned a blind eye to the fate of the boat, thinking that it might help "send a message" to deter further potential boat people? Difficult as it is to imagine the latter (and it is even more difficult to imagine connivance in it by many people), it cannot, on the known evidence, be discounted.

By whichever version, better use of the information might have saved many of those who drowned, a terrible indictment of our processes which we must make sure never happens again. The authorities have seemed little interested, even after a careful analysis of the evidence by Mr Kevin, but, as fresh evidence has emerged through the children-overboard inquiry, it has become clear that an independent inquiry, with access to all of the facts, is essential. This is too important for a Senate committee, both because it has found itself unable to compel some information, and because some will dismiss its findings as partisan. More than the honour of the Navy and other agencies who might have been misused is involved; the very honour of the nation is at stake.


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