Transcript of interview with Tony Kevin
Life Matters with Julie McCrossin
11 October 2002
Julie McCrossin: First today to a sad anniversary and some tough allegations against Australian authorities.
Tomorrow week is the anniversary of the death of 353 asylum seekers who drowned when their boat the SIEVX - that stands for the 'Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X, SIEVX'- sank in international waters en route to Australia from Indonesia. There were a few survivors picked up by Indonesian fishing boats, one was the mother of three girls who drowned and you may remember that photograph of the daughters dressed in white that hit the front pages of most Australian newspapers. Their father who was already living in Australia was unable to fly to Indonesia you may remember to comfort his wife because if he left he wouldn't be allowed back in the country.
One thing that remains unclear is the precise role of the Australian government and the Australian Federal Police in all this and one man has made it his mission to discover the truth about who knew what and when.
Tony Kevin is a former Australian senior diplomat, he's a former ambassador to Cambodia and Poland and is now a visiting fellow at the ANU Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies and he joins me now from Melbourne. Good morning.
Tony Kevin: Good morning Julie.
Julie McCrossin: For people who aren't following this as closely as you are, could you just give us the key facts about that ill-fated voyage?
Tony Kevin: Yes I will try.
At the time that SIEVX left Indonesia, there were reports coming down to Australian Federal Police which had been following the whole people smuggling industry very closely.
The Australian Federal Police was playing a very strange role in all of this under the direction of the government. On the one hand they were managing in the Australian embassy a propaganda campaign which said very explicitly, just through leaflets and T shirts and so on warning people - 'Don't use people smugglers, their boats are overcrowded and dangerous, many people have died, if you get on one you will expose yourself to great danger, lose your money and fail to get to Australia. Stop, don't go further into this trap'. On the other hand, that same Australian Police was conducting a very grubby arms length people smuggling disruption program itself, which involved the use of informants and sting operators, people who set up companies in places where asylum seekers were known to gather, encouraged them to hand over their savings, organised voyages in cooperation with bribed Indonesian police and then either sabotaged the engines or sank the boats.
So we were actually putting into practise the warnings that our government was giving to these people.
Julie McCrossin: Now Tony Kevin it is my understanding that the Australian government and the Australian Federal Police have denied these allegations. What in essence is the evidence for this involvement in such activities?
Tony Kevin: They've denied them in a very qualified way. The denials always go to phrasing like 'we were never directly involved in any such activities'. What they haven't clearly denied is the arms length association with criminality, encouraging at second remove operators and Indonesian police to do things that effectively disrupted people smuggling and achieved Australian objectives. And unfortunately it is hard to disassociate the tragedy of SIEVX from this two year old pattern of people smuggling disruption.
Julie McCrossin: Why have you become so committed to pursuing this and exposing what you see as dubious unlawful activities?
Tony Kevin: Well simply because our society can't operate on a moral double standard. If we believe in values of justice and deceny and a fair go and a helping hand within Australia, we cannot defend those values by, at the same time, behaving on our borders in extremely cruel and deceitful and even murderous ways.
Julie McCrossin: They're very strong allegations! I mean, precisely what are you saying the Australian Federal Police have been involved in?
Tony Kevin: I'm saying that they lost perspective. I'm saying that the objective of disrupting people coming to Australia on unauthorised boats became such a whole of government obsession, particularly during the crucial months of September and October last year just before the election, that the humanity, our common humanity with the people who were travelling on these boats was completely lost sight of. And my concern extends not only to what happened at the people smuggling disruption program end within Indonesia, it also goes to the very clearly documented failure to conduct a Safety Of Life At Sea search when this boat, known to be overloaded, known to be at great risk, and known to be sailing into Australia's intensive border protection air surveillance zone between Indonesia and Christmas Island was simply not looked for in a Safety Of Life At Sea sense.
Julie McCrossin: So this is coming back to the sinking of the so called SIEVX where over 353 people were killed. What exactly are you saying should have been done that was not done by Australian authorities?
Tony Kevin: Well we know we have incomplete knowledge of what reports came into the border protection operation because the government has been assiduously concealing and blacking out very large chunks of important information. But we do know there was a report on the 20th of October which clearly signalled a risk to life and which was not acted on and that is clear operational negligence on the part of the Australian Defence Force border protection authorities and it needs to be fully investigated.
Unfortunately the Senate Committee investigating these matters over the last six months has tried very hard to get to the bottom of these things, but on the Government side it has met with nothing but consistent obstruction and obstacles placed in the way of interrogating key witnesses and extremely distressing, complete scepticism, the assumption that Australians couldn't do these things, this must be a fairy story.
Julie McCrossin: There's an allegation there obviously strongly against the government's attitude but as I recall back at that time when this boat sank and those terrible images of those young girls were on our television screens and the question of whether the father who was in Australia should go back or not, the Australian Labor Party also supported the government position - the man would not be allowed back in basically if he left. Is that correct? Is my memory correct?
Tony Kevin: Yes it is and these are questions of cruelty and policy and cruelty and policy is something that can be discussed. But what I'm talking about here more fundamentally is the issue of life and death. Can we tolerate - as Senator Faulkner said in the Senate two weeks ago - the Australian Federal Police and the ASIS protocols do not give these agencies a direct or indirect licence to kill in the pursuit of government policy - and the issue is as fundamental as that.
Julie McCrossin: Do Australians care about what you're talking about?
Tony Kevin: We have to.
Julie McCrossin: No, but do they? What's the evidence?
Tony Kevin: I'm sure that if the issues are put clearly before them and not obfuscated by attempts to turn this into a sort of a political dialogue on whether we should accept refugees or not, if the facts of accountability for life and death are put before people, I'm sure that they will care.
Julie McCrossin: The polls appear to indicate again and again support for what's referred to as the border protection policy and an active discouragement of those boats coming over.
Tony Kevin: Well precisely. Our government agencies and unfortunately many of our media keep using these bland Orwellian phrases that conceal the reality which is people dying and drowning in the water. Fatima, Zhra, Eman - the three little girls, their parents, Sondos and Ahmed, the little girl, Zaynab, the twelve year old who lost her father and her mother and all her brothers and sisters and is now living in a totally catatonic state in Sydney with an uncle she hardly knows. These are human tragedies in our society and we have to stop talking in abstractions about policy and start remembering the people.
Julie McCrossin: Do we know anything else about the survivors of that sinking nearly a year ago?
Tony Kevin: We know that almost all of them have now been found temporary or permanent refuges. Many have gone to Finland, Sweden, Norway, Canada where they've been given permanent refuge. Seven have come to Australia where characteristically they have only been given temporary protection visas. I think there are two still waiting in Indonesia for temporary protection visas to come to Australia.
Julie McCrossin: Tony Kevin there are activities, commemorations, rallies coming up to mark this sinking of the boat nearly a year ago. Do you anticipate it will have any influence on government policy?
Tony Kevin: Absolutely. I am really encouraged by the serious concern that senior Labor Party senators like Senator Faulkner and Senator Cook and Senator Ray have shown in a very stormy debate in the Senate two weeks ago; Senator Bartlett, the new leader of the Democrats, Senator Brown of the Greens, the Independents. When the report is handed down in the Senate four days after the anniversary on the 23rd of October, I am sure there will be a very strong debate in the Senate and a very strong call for a Judicial Inquiry.
Julie McCrossin: Well, Tony Kevin, thank you for talking to us on Life Matters.
Tony Kevin: Could I just say one last thing?
Julie McCrossin: Yes.
Tony Kevin: Details of events on Saturday the 19th are contained on the SIEVX website, www.sievx.com
Julie McCrossin: Thank you very much.
Tony Kevin: Thank you Julie.
Julie McCrossin: I've been talking to Tony Kevin, currently a visiting fellow at the Australian National University's Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies and a former senior Australian diplomat, including being Australia's Ambassador to Cambodia and Poland.