PM's people 'knew of danger ship'By Mark Forbes
June 15 2002
Prime Minister John Howard's people-smuggling taskforce was told on October 18 last year that a vessel carrying asylum seekers towards Christmas Island might be in poor condition and require help.
No alert was issued to shipping or rescue attempted, and a vessel that left Indonesia that day later sank, with the loss of 353 passengers.
Detailed minutes of the taskforce meetings, presented to the Senate's children-overboard inquiry, appear to contradict previous claims that the government was unaware of details of the vessel's departure. The incoming navy chief, Rear Admiral Chris Ritchie, has also stated that the boat "was not a SIEV (suspected illegal entry vessel) as far as we were concerned".
On October 22 the taskforce was told the vessel, referred to as SIEV 8 in the minutes, was "not spotted yet, missing, grossly overloaded, no jetsam spotted", but again no alert was issued. The next day, the taskforce was told the boat sank in international waters on October 19 with 397 people on board.
Prime Minister Howard was briefed on the issue, the minutes say. Mr Howard's office had no comment to make on the material yesterday.
In April, taskforce head Jane Halton rejected claims that the government was aware the vessel had departed and may be in trouble but had refused to dispatch a naval rescue. The allegations were "absolutely not correct", she told the overboard inquiry.
"I am aware of one particular allegation that has been made in relation to our state of knowledge about a vessel leaving," she said.
She said the taskforce sometimes had a "vague knowledge" of ship departures, but claims that it had "categorical knowledge of individual vessels" were untrue.
The minutes of the October 18 meeting state that two boats with 600 aboard were expected to reach Christmas Island.
One was SIEV 8. The other, SIEV 6, arrived at Christmas Island with 200 people aboard, and three more boats were expected at Ashmore Reef. "Some risk of vessels in poor condition and rescue at sea," the minutes state. "No confirmed sightings by Coastwatch, but multisource information with high confidence level."
Another taskforce member, Katrina Edwards, told the inquiry last month that the taskforce had discussed the vessel on October 22. "The meeting was told that the boat had not been spotted and that there had been no calls from relatives, who are often well briefed on when to expect an arrival," she said.
"On the other hand, the original report had seemed firmer than some. As I recall, on balance, the conclusion was drawn that the assessment was not sufficiently firm as to warrant passing the information to AusSAR (Australian Search and Rescue) at that point."
On October 23, the taskforce was briefed by a surviving passenger who said the vessel sank quickly with nearly 70 children on board and no working lifejackets. About 50 people were rescued by two Indonesian fishing boats the next day, after about 20 hours in the water.
Rear Admiral Ritchie told a Senate hearing last month that he was offended by the claims surrounding the sinking. "If anybody had been in possession of specific information which said this boat here is sinking, then we would have certainly done all we could within our power to save those lives," he said.
This week, Defence Minister Robert Hill blocked a navy officer who had reviewed the intelligence reports from appearing at the Senate inquiry.