David Marr interviewed by Phillip AdamsLate Night Live
10 March 2003
ADAMS: But first it is my great pleasure to welcome David Marr to the programme. David, I've been waiting to get you in to discuss this book, for, I think six months - it's been a long time in the pipeline.
MARR: It certainly has. It's the hardest work I've ever done, writing that book, making a story of it.
ADAMS: Well let's hope it's a story that people read and think about.
There was an interesting little news item a couple of days ago listeners - 100 Iraqi asylum seekers have been granted temporary protection visas after having been deemed 'genuine refugees'. The wait was a long one - 15 months after their rickety fishing boat enters Australian waters; 15 months after the Prime Minister made the comment: 'I don't want people like that in Australia. Genuine refugees don't do that - they hang on to their children.' These 100 Iraqis are from that defamed group of asylum seekers who were at the centre of the 'Children Overboard' scandal in October 2001, right at the start of the last Federal election. Now, not only has it been shown that they didn't throw kids overboard as was alleged by the government at the time, but yes, it turns out that they're 'kosher' as refugees. And the timing of their final processing from the 'Pacific solution' detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea happens to coincide with the release of this most comprehensive book on the Howard Government's campaign against boat people.
Dark Victory documents in forensic detail the high seas confrontations, the international uproar, the secret backroom strategies and saddest of all, the circumstances in which hundreds of people disappeared or died on their way to Australia.
David Marr of course currently presents 'Media Watch' on ABC television. His co-author Marian Wilkinson is the Washington DC correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age. She's tied up with the coverage of an impending war tonight but - thank heavens - here's David.
David, I want to ask you about the logistics of writing this, given the secrecy, the political evasions, the ? employed on the policy - how difficult to get hold of accurate, verifiable information. Did you get access to official documents?
MARR: In some ways it was a dream because of the Senate Inquiry that was held into the 'Kids Overboard'. That brought out documents and cross-examined people who you wouldn't usually expect to get to for thirty years. Usually, this would be the kind of book that you could write thirty years down the track when the Archives were unlocked. But a great deal of material and the extraordinarily terrific cross-examination - particularly by John Faulkner at the Senate Inquiry - released a great kind of raft of material. Now on top of...
ADAMS: Now that made it possible for you to observe obsfucation and naval officers in considerable embarassment, but could you get to them directly yourself, you and Marian?
MARR: Phillip, it's always difficult to talk about the people we got to off the record and I'd prefer not to go anywhere down that track except to say that we spoke to many, many people who really, really knew both in the civilian and the military bureaucracy what was going on - plus of course, the wonderful Norwegians.
ADAMS: Now I understand that you got written answers to questions posed to John Howard, John Anderson, Alexander Downer.
MARR: Yes, they're not what you and I might normally call 'answers to questions' - they were written responses to the questions we put - and here and there they did provide important answers, important fragments. But it would be exaggerating hugely to say that any of those men came clean about what was going on. But so much was known... so much we were able to get to from the other side - I mean we were able to talk to the Foreign Minister of Norway about the extraordinary conversations he had with Alexander Downer.
ADAMS: Yes, that's a remarkable chapter, isn't it.
MARR: It's amazing! Downer could not understand the Scandinavian point of view which was that there was no law that allowed the Norwegian government to order Captain Rinnan to sail the Tampa away from Australia and the Foreign Minister of Norway kept explaining this to Downer and it just didn't register with Downer who became extremely agitated and angry and shouting and pleading for them to order Rinnan to sail away. And it reminds us all of how much of Australian government - and I don't just mean by this government - is done by bullying rather than Law. And Canberra expected throughout this story that bullying would work, and it doesn't with those Scandos. it just doesn't.
ADAMS: In many ways the role of the Australian Navy is most striking in this story. In many ways it is the officers and sailors of the HMAS Adelaide and a couple of other vessels that emerge, well not as heroes, but certainly with some dignity.
MARR: All of this was just so difficult for the navy. For the navy, saving of life at sea, the care for life at sea, is like a religion. They are taught about it from the moment they go into the navy as kids, and it doesn't matter who these people are ultimately, it doesn't matter why they're in the ocean, if they are in trouble, they are to be looked after and rescued, and the whole of this operation required the finenessing of the ordinary rules of humane rescue at sea and in particular with the first big encounter which led to the 'Children Overboard' allegations' Commander Norman Banks of the [HMAS] Adelaide was faced with a situation that defied everything he had ever been taught about how an Australian Naval Commander behaved. And he was being ordered down the line by civilian bureaucrats in Canberra to not rescue people whom he clearly believed needed rescue. Eventually he did rescue them. They were heroically rescued by members of his crew and his thanks for that was to have photographs of that rescue, quite fraudulently used to try and shore up a story about the misbehaviour of those asylum seekers throwing their kids overboard.
ADAMS: David there were rumours about a meeting in Jakarta in June 2001. We got little whispers of this meeting. What did you find out about Phillip Ruddock in Jakarta?
MARR: Ruddock went to Jakarta in June, that is to say a couple of months before the Tampa to review what was being done on the ground there to break up the people smuggling syndicates and try to disrupt the trade in asylum seekers. And at this meeting on June the 15th 2001 of all the people involved in the people smuggling deterrence as it were - they met in the Australian embassy, these are the Australian officials and in the middle of this meeting Ruddock raised the issue of pirates. He wanted to know about pirates. He wanted to know why pirates weren't raiding the people smuggling boats. And the people present were shocked by this and they moved the conversation on and then Ruddock raised it again - about pirates. And finally the Australian Federal Police representative at that meeting, a man called Leigh Dixon, objected strongly to this issue being raised. Now Ruddock admits he raised the issue of pirates and he told us it was because pirates were newsworthy at the time and for that he gave us a copy of an article from the Economist dated a month after that meeting.
ADAMS: Did he also raise the issue of physical interference with people smugglers' boats?
MARR: We were told that and there were rumours around Jakarta immediately after his visits in June and then later - because there were later meetings that year - that he had been raising this issue. That is not nearly so clear-cut as the pirates issue, but it was believed by people at that meeting and believed in Jakarta that the Minister for Immigration had discussed the possibilities of physical sabotage of boats.
ADAMS: Now the Minister, the book reports, puts it jokingly - 'We could interfere with boats'.
MARR: And the jokey tone was objected to very much by the people who were there. They didn't think such things were jokey.
ADAMS: I spoke to Ross Coulthart, now at Channel 9, a former colleague of yours of course at 'Four Corners' who described the shady activities of that shady fellow, Kevin John Enniss who admitted to being involved in people smuggling disruption activities in Indonesia, including the scuttling of some boats, at least close to shore. Were you able to find any 'smoking guns' or uncover evidence that links what Enniss was doing with the mainland?
MARR: Marian Wilkinson went to Jakarta and spoke to a number of people there. 'Smoking guns' - I don't know what these days we rate a smoking gun but there were people who spoke to her, people in a position to know what they were talking about who made a very sensible point which is that however lawful the Australians wanted operations up there to be, they ultimately couldn't control what the Indonesians did to carry out the Australian wishes. And Mick Keelty, the Australian Federal Police Commissioner said much the same thing to the Senate Inquiry. They couldn't do the work themselves, they used Indonesians to do the work. They couldn't guarantee that the Indonesians hadn't gone too far. There's a curious absence of reporting about boats going down at their moorings which is the kind of example that Kevin John Enniss uses. But there are lots of examples we know of that boats get a bit out to sea and their engines conk out...
ADAMS: That's even more ominous isn't it... when boats fail while midway from Indonesia to Australia as they approach Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef.
MARR: And the story begins and ends with exactly such boats. The first boat is the Palapa, which is the boat where 438 people were rescued by the Tampa and what is so particularly distressing about that is that Australia left that boat out there to endure a night of major storm when it knew that it was dead in the water, when it had seen the boat being paddled with planks torn from the deck and they did not organise a rescue.
ADAMS: You say Australia did this - what manifestation, what embodiment of Australia did this?
MARR: Well that was done by RCC Australia, the Rescue Coordination Centre of Australia. I do not myself believe that it was their wish that that boat should remain unrescued that night, but I can't say any more definitely who was twisting their arm, but they are a professional rescue organisation and they do not have a record for doing such things.
ADAMS: Well of course the Australian authorities blame the Indonesians for failing to launch a rescue don't they?
MARR: That is a completely despicable thing to do. The international rule of sea rescue is that any Rescue Authority anywhere in the world - and the way that radio signals bounce around the world, it can be on the other side of the globe - any rescue authority that is aware that a boat requires rescue firstly sets in train the rescue and then sets in train the most appropriate authority to co-ordinate that rescue. Australia in this instance claimed that the boat didn't need rescue, despite having twice flown over it, twice seen people jumping up and down on the roof signalling desperately for help, tried to get the Indonesians and instead of getting the rescue underway and then getting the Indonesians on the job, simply tried to get the Indonesians on the job knowing that there was almost no chance that that would work, because it never does.
ADAMS: We have to emphasise do we not that Australia knew an awful lot about what was going on in terms of the traffic between Indonesia and here?
MARR: An awful lot! The claim that the Tampa crisis emerged because a delegation of angry asylum seekers went up onto the bridge of the Tampa and twisted Captain Rinnan's arm is very, very bogus. The Palapa was a boat of special interest, it was known to be on its way some twenty-four hours before it was even sighted by the first Coastwatch plane. There were peculiar and unprecedented requests from the Department of Immigration that the people on board be somehow, anyhow, got back to Indonesia. There was a bizarre notion even before the Tampa had arrived on the scene that somehow the boat would be towed by the Tampa back to Indonesia. There was an extraordinary effort going on directed from Canberra to make sure those people never reached Christmas Island.
ADAMS: You claim that Rinnan was threatened with imprisonment in Australia.
MARR: Several times, not just once - several times.
ADAMS: By whom and on what grounds?
MARR: He was threatened as a people smuggler. Having been asked to rescue these people, having conducted, a technically most difficult rescue - the passage in the book I must say that we're particularly proud of, just physically describing rescuing the 438 people from this boat - the Tampa is enormous, it's the size of three city blocks - it's gigantic! Anyway...
ADAMS: It's not built to do this...
MARR: It's not built to do this. He did all of this. He's trying to go to the nearest port to unload them and he was threatened with fines and imprisonment under the Migration Act as a people smuggler! Now Marian and I were the first people to ever report this during the election campaign.
ADAMS: You also reported at that time that there was a threat that the ship would be impounded.
MARR: Yes that's another possible penalty and he was threatened twice on the first night because the Tampa didn't turn around once as most people think, it actually yo-yoed up there in the Indian Ocean, it turned around twice that night. Then when the time came for it to actually sail into Australian territorial waters a couple of days later he was once again threatened with fines and imprisonment.
ADAMS: Of course,meanwhile we've got this extraordinary scene being played out as you said with the Foreign Minister and his Norwegian counterpart. Let me just quote something here. This is the Foreign Minister in Helsinki: 'I was astonished when I was approached by the Foreign Minister and asked to intervene in this situation. I didn't believe it, I couldn't believe it that a nation like Australia could do that. But after a while I realised that this was serious.'
MARR: And he was not the only one who disbelieved it. And by the way the Tampa was not just a passing Norwegian ship. The Wilhelmsen line that owns that ship has been trading with Australia for 100 years. The man who owns that shipping line lived in Australia for awhile, his son lives here now. It has deep, intimate contacts with Australia. They couldn't believe what was being done either. And they kept saying: 'Look, we're not going to panic about any of this' - but anyway Scandinavians don't panic - 'We're not going to panic about any of this, because in a minute they're going to get some competent legal advice and realise they cant do this.'
And it was a couple of days before they realised that the Australian government was actually not interested in getting competent legal advice. And one of the - to my mind - deeply troubling aspects of this book, is to look at the statements made by John Howard all through this crisis about what legal authority he had for various things and to know from contacts I have that that was just off the top of his head.
ADAMS: Peter Reith doesn't give evidence at the Senate Inquiry.
ADAMS: Most significant that he doesn't. Did you get access to him at any point to hear his side of the 'Children Overboard' deception?
MARR: He wasn't interested... He believes that he is grossly misunderstood in all of this, that he never, never, never had any doubts or reason to doubt that kids were thrown overboard and he was not interested in pursuing that with us.
ADAMS: David, take your memory back to when all that story burst. I can remember sitting in this very studio and I just knew it was nonsense; it was just palpably absurd. Was that your instinctive reaction at the time?
MARR: As soon as you saw the photographs that were produced you knew they were not photographs of people being thrown into the water, nor were they of particularly young children and what's more, they had life jackets on. So it was not particularly death-defying to throw what looked like young adolescents into the water and clearly it didn't ring true. But Phillip, what the press - and I include myself in this - have to learn, is that in those events - remember how immediately there were more things, more amazing things happening and we the press just followed the story, we were tumbling in its wake... And I want to make a particular commendation for the work of the Australian during that time, it was the best and surest paper for the reporting of what was happening; and it was the Australian and particularly Patrick Walters on the staff of the Australian who did not give up on the 'Children Overboard' story and eventually paid to send a journalist back over to Christmas Island where many of us had heard that there rumours around that people could actually pin it as bogus and the Australian made the investment, did the work and broke the story.
ADAMS: I don't think any aspect of media or any part of the media can be as pleased with itself over SIEVX.
MARR: [Pause] We do not take the view in the book... that there is any evidence that SIEVX was sabotaged. Perhaps it was, but there is no evidence of that. But what there is evidence of, which we find... deeply troubling, is that for two and a half days, a boat that was known to be grossly overloaded, derelict, carrying hundreds of people was overdue at Christmas Island and nobody went to look for it. I mean they went out one night - as it happens, the boat had sunk an hour or so before - but when it didn't turn up over the next two and a half days no-one went to look, because what had happened to Australia in those months is that instead of the non-appearance of a boat carrying so many people being a matter of deep concern it was a matter of... minor celebration - here was another boat that hadn't turned up.
ADAMS: Can you remember a murkier and more shameful period in our history, our modern history?
MARR: I myself can't. I'm old enough to have only one minor point of comparison, and that's... - I'm not saying these two events are related, I'm not saying these two events are equated either - but I'm old enough to remember that in 1975 somebody wanted to win an election, which could have been won without overthrowing a democratically elected Prime Minister, and our argument with this book is that Howard was not losing the elections at the time this set of circumstances was set in train. It would have been a much tighter race and nobody could foresee September the 11th, but he was not necessarily losing and yet he did it.
ADAMS: One of the people you had access to was Beazley. You did interview him.
MARR: Yes we interviewed Beazley at length.
ADAMS: Does he now have deep regrets about the way he handled this?
MARR: He will express no regrets, he will express no regrets. We are pretty remorseless in this book about the Labor Party. Our view is that none of what really went wrong at this time could have happened without the cooperation of the Labor Party. And Beazley's argument is that had he not done this, had he not fallen in with this the Party would have been destroyed.
ADAMS: David Marr and Marian Wilkinson have written a book called Dark Victory. Allen & Unwin is the publisher and I hope that it is widely discussed across this wide brown land. Thank you very much David.
MARR: Thanks Phillip.