The tragedy of indifference
By Robert Manne
24 June 2002

On October 19 last year, a grossly overloaded boat carrying 397 asylum seekers sank suddenly in the waters between Java and Christmas Island. Most drowned quickly. A hundred or so clung to jetsam. Over the next 20 hours, many of these lost the strength to hang on or the will to live. When two Indonesian fishing boats eventually arrived, 44 asylum seekers were still alive; 353 had died.

It is sobering to reflect that the death toll on October 19 was twice the number of Israelis murdered by suicide bombers this year. All those who died were desperate to get to Australia; many had fathers or husbands already here. October 19 represents, thus, what one might call the largest Australian-related civilian catastrophe in the history of this country.

When news of the tragedy reached Australia on the morning of October 23, at the mid-point of the election campaign, and when Kim Beazley spoke of the policy failure of the Howard Government, the Prime Minister went ballistic. The attempt to exploit the drownings for sordid political advantage proved that Beazley was unfit to take his job. Time and again Howard told the public that the boat went down in Indonesian waters. How typical of Beazley that he should still suggest that Australia was, somehow, to blame. In the face of this barrage, Beazley beat a hasty retreat.

Were it not for a single individual, Tony Kevin, a recently retired senior Australian diplomat, this asylum-seeker tragedy would soon have faded from the national memory. Kevin smelt what he thought was a rat. He embarked on a searching investigation of the incident and a private political crusade. When a committee of the Senate began an inquiry into the children overboard affair, Kevin wrote a submission urging it to turn its attention to a contiguous question which he regarded as of far greater human significance - namely, Australian indifference or worse to the mass drowning of October 19. Some of what he wrote was troubling; some was highly speculative and, as I thought, extreme.

Initially, most people, including even the Labor members on the Senate inquiry, were unconvinced and even hostile to the Kevin case. The navy was clearly outraged. In early April, Rear-Admiral Geoffrey Smith, the head of anti-asylum-seeker military strategy, explicitly denied the question critical to Kevin's speculations - namely, defence foreknowledge of the asylum-seeker boat now commonly called SIEV-X. "At no time," Smith told the Senate, "were we told of the sailing of that vessel until we were told it had foundered." On April 16, Smith published a letter in The Canberra Times to similar effect. The Kevin case had been authoritatively refuted. Or so it seemed.

When Rear-Admiral Mark Bonser, the head of Coastwatch, read Smith's letter, he realised that it contained information that was plainly false. He telephoned immediately to inform the navy that the testimony he would be giving to the Senate on May 22 would be seriously inconsistent with the evidence of Smith.

On the day Bonser was to testify, Smith sent a letter of "clarification" to the Senate. It outlined the intelligence that defence had received from Coastwatch concerning SIEV-X on October 14, 18, 20 and 22. Far from knowing nothing about SIEV-X before learning of its sinking on October 23, as Smith had led the Senate to believe, it now became clear that the navy had received a great deal of sometimes contradictory intelligence about SIEV-X before October 23. Some of this was extremely detailed. In Smith's letter of clarification, we learnt that the navy had been informed on October 20 that SIEV-X had "400 passengers on board, with some passengers not embarking because the vessel was overcrowded".

Unfortunately, not even Bonser's testimony proved entirely reliable. Bonser told the Senate inquiry that, so far as he knew, SIEV-X had not been discussed by the critical Howard Government people-smuggling taskforce at any time before October 22. This appeared to confirm what the head of the taskforce, Jane Halton, had intimated to the Senate inquiry in her testimony of April 16.

This suggestion was also soon revealed to be false. In early June, the minutes of the taskforce were released. What they showed was that on October 18 the taskforce had learned that SIEV-X was on its way to Christmas Island and that there was "some risk of vessels in poor condition and rescue at sea". The basis of this intelligence was described as "multi-source information with high confidence level".

On October 20, SIEV-X was still expected to arrive at Christmas Island on the following day. By October 22, however, SIEV-X (called SIEV-8 in the minutes) was presumed already to have sunk. As the taskforce minutes put it: "Not spotted yet, missing, grossly overloaded, no jetsam spotted, no reports from relatives."

Just as Bonser's evidence had discredited the April testimony of Smith, so did the taskforce minutes discredit Halton's suggestion that information about SIEV-X had not reached her committee before knowledge that the boat had sunk.

The minutes also undermined a claim maintained by the government since John Howard had first raised it on October 23 - namely, that there existed solid information for the proposition that SIEV-X had gone down in Indonesian waters and thus outside the Australian air-surveillance zone. According to survivor testimony outlined to the taskforce on October 23, SIEV-X was "likely to have been in international waters south of Java" when it sank.

Last week, Bonser issued an important amplification of his Senate evidence. He revealed that, before 10am on October 20, he had passed on to defence a warning sent by an officer of the Australian Federal Police in Indonesia to the effect that SIEV-X was, in his opinion, grossly overloaded and, thus, in grave danger of sinking.

Despite this clear warning from the federal police in Indonesia about the dangers facing SIEV-X, the Senate inquiry has established that, on October 20, no information was forwarded to the Australian Search and Rescue authorities. Even more importantly, despite this clear warning, the Senate inquiry has also established that no Australian aircraft were ordered on October 20 or later to fly over international waters south of the Sunda Strait in search of SIEV-X.

The case concerning SIEV-X can be summarised, with precision, like this. It is now clear that no Australian aircraft or naval vessels spotted SIEV-X before it sank. It is highly unlikely, although not impossible, that if aircraft had been sent to survey the waters south of Java on the morning of October 20, any lives could have been saved. Yet it is also clear that on the morning of October 20, at a time when the government had learnt from an entirely reliable Australian source that 400 asylum seekers were in deadly peril, and at a time when no one knew whether or not they were still alive, no decision was taken to issue a warning or to mount a search and rescue operation of any kind.

In the history of our callous indifference to Middle Eastern asylum seekers, no single fact is more disturbing than the passivity of the Australian Defence Force to the dangers facing 400 fellow human beings in the three days between the morning of October 20 and the morning of October 23, when the anticipated news of 353 deaths finally arrived.

Robert Manne is associate professor of politics at La Trobe University.

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