by Tony Kevin
Canberra, 7 June 2003

For people who care about establishing truth and accountability for the deaths of 353 people on SIEVX, the current leadership challenge in Labor is of profound importance. It is also profoundly important to all Australians, whether ALP members or not (I am not), because it will define the political alternative to Howard that we are offered at the next election. While I am mostly busy writing my SIEVX book, I have a duty as a concerned citizen to offer some immediate public analysis of Beazley's and Crean's record on SIEVX as I see it.

Yes, we are a single issue interest group: but we care intensely about this issue, because it is a major litmus test in defining what Australia is now and what kind of Australia we will pass on to our children. If we as a nation and a political culture do not have the collective guts to face up to our national security authorities' increasingly probable shared responsibility for the deaths of 353 innocent victims, mostly women and kids, whose only 'crime' was to seek peacefully a safe refuge and new home in Australia, then there is little hope for our nation or for its much-vaunted 'values'.

So let's look at the current and past profiles on SIEVX of Kim Beazley and Simon Crean.

Beazley initially reacted strongly and humanely to the breaking news of the SIEVX tragedy on 23 October 2001. He condemned it as a policy failure by the Howard government, in that they had not achieved effective arrangements with Indonesia to stop such asylum-seeker boats from leaving Indonesia. He said Labor's regional diplomacy would have been more effective in stopping the problem at source. When Howard reacted scathingly, claiming that Beazley was trying to score political points over a human tragedy, Beazley quickly went silent on the sinking (Marr and Wilkinson, "Dark Victory", pages 239-241).

No doubt this was part of Labor's prevailing 'small target' electoral strategy. Since 18 September, when Labor agreed to pass all the anti- boat people immigration bills re-presented by Howard to Parliament, 'the fight had gone out of Labor' ('DV', pages 155-156). In a comment to Marr and Wilkinson ('DV', endnote 32, page 308), Beazley recalls this phase of border protection: 'Nobody had been killed or beaten up or hurt in any way .. beyond a bit of jostling there hadn't been anything of a particularly underworld character.'

This was 15 days into Operation Relex and three weeks after the tragic drama of the Palapa's rescue by MV Tampa. The 400 people crowded onto the stricken 'Palapa' had already narrowly escaped capsizing and drowning in an overnight storm, while Australia's Coastwatch air surveillance had for 22 hours deliberately ignored their obvious distress signals. After MV Tampa's rescue, their human rights had been grossly abused by Australian authorities, under the appalled gaze of a watching world. The first three SIEVs in Operation Relex had already been intercepted and the asylum-seekers on board treated cruelly and abusively by Australian Navy vessels at Ashmore Reef and on the troopship 'Manoora'.

Of course most of this (except for Tampa) was still being kept secret from the public at the time. It dribbled out later, over a very long period. But we know (see Senate CMI Hansards, pages 746 and 801) that from the time the election was called on October 5, Beazley as Leader of the Opposition in the caretaker election period was getting regular defence briefings from the Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie. Operation Relex was the ADF's top priority at the time, so one can assume that Beazley was being kept in the picture by Navy on how it saw Operation Relex as going. To judge by his comment quoted above, it was all pretty much OK by him.

Not only this: under normal arrangements for the election period, Beazley or his security-cleared staff would have been offered a selection of key national security and defence-related cables each day. This means he almost certainly was briefed on the crucial 23 October 2001 cable from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta (released on 4 February 2003) reporting that SIEVX had sunk up to '8 degrees south latitude', (which a glance at any map would show was far south of Sunda Strait, and well inside the announced Operation Relex area of operations), and 'within the Indonesian maritime search and rescue area' (which extends to south of Christmas Island, i.e., covers the whole of the Operation Relex zone) .Yet at no stage did Beazley challenge Howard's blatant public misrepresentations starting on 23 October that the boat had sunk 'in Indonesian waters' and therefore was not Australia's responsibility. Unless I am wrong on this, there seems a good chance that Beazley knew from the beginning these were lies.

According to 'DV' (pages 242-243), Beazley kept silent when Neville Wran spoke passionately to a Party fundraiser in Sydney on 25 October on the tragedy of SIEVX. Beazley declined to call on Howard to allow Sondos Ismail's bereaved husband Ahmed Al-Zalimi to fly from Australia to Indonesia to comfort her over the loss of their three little daughters Zhra, Fatima and Eman. He did not want another front page lost to the drowned children: he said, 'I was not going to give the government another day's worth of debate on the subject' (page 243). Robert Manne also wrote tellingly on this incident in 'Eureka Street', Jan-Feb 2002. (extract online at )

'DV' has many index references to Beazley, but perhaps these words on the final days of the election campaign best sum up Marr and Wilkinson's views, which concurs with my recollections of the period (pages 274-275):

'Beazley was convinced that every word he spoke about the asylum- seekers only helped John Howard's election prospects. He was right - because he had spent the whole campaign locked in step with Howard's border protection policies.

'Beazley and his staff were angry that the press was once again dominated by stories from Operation Relex. They deeply resented church attacks on the party's refugee policy and what they saw as the "left-wing" moralists in the party criticising their leader. Beazley's rhetoric had often been as strident as Howard's against queue jumpers and those "criminals who take advantage of our generosity". He had tried to neutralise Howard on border protection while talking about "the real issues" .. jobs, health, education.'

Nineteen months later, it is clear that Beazley and his advisers still do not get it. Surely anyone seriously aspiring to lead the Labor Party in 2003 cannot ignore the moral and criminality-related issues raised by the probability that large numbers of fellow human beings were killed and brutalised as a result of officially approved Australian Government clandestine border protection strategies in Indonesia. The Labor Party knows now that Howard's defence and other public service officials misled the CMI Senate Committee over many months, leading to a flawed exoneration of Australian authorities' conduct over SIEVX (see Senator Cook, 5 February 2003, Senate Hansard pages 293-294).

Senators Faulkner and Collins have pursued assiduously the subterfuges and deceptions in Government testimony since that CMI Report, and started to uncover what was happening in the AFP people smuggling disruption program. They know there are many very worrying 'smoking guns' here. The Senate opposition parties and independents passed two major motions on SIEVX on 10 and 11 December 2002.

Yet for 19 months, Beazley has not to my knowledge said a word on any of these matters. His office never replied to my repeated offers to brief him on SIEVX. Now, when he again stands for Labor leadership, his June 6 press conference contains not a single word on such matters. His press conference strikes me as his 2001 campaign revisited. He played on the mantra word 'security', apparently assuming once again that he is talking to the same frightened and xenophobic Australian public as in October 2001. It is dog-whistle politics again, based on a strategy: 'I can get us over the line into government, as long as I don't have to talk about moral issues or refugees'.

The trouble is that Howard with his now corrupted and compliant national security apparatus, not to mention a cynically supportive Murdoch press, has the power to fine-tune the national security agenda to cook up whatever scare suits him, when it suits him. If Howard wants to frighten the electorate with another phoney border protection or terrorism scare campaign, he has the resources to bring this on. Beazley as a leader still clinging to his small-target strategy would face his 2001 agony all over again, trying desperately to get voters to focus on the 'real' issues, while morally principled voters again deserted a silent Labor in disgust for the smaller opposition parties, and Howard again seduced confused voters with siren songs of national security. Beazley would have no defence against such tactics, having again boxed himself in. In playing by Howard's rules, Beazley would always be beaten by Howard. Beazley still naively imagines the next election may be a level playing field; but with Howard there, it will not be. It is now too late for Beazley to change course on this, even if he wanted to (and there is no sign from his June 6 media conference that he does).

Crean is very different. He is morally untainted by the refugee issue: he was not publicly prominent in this area up to October 2001. He dropped the unimpressive Con Sciacca and appointed Julia Gillard as a capable new migration shadow minister. She has proceeded cautiously but she and Creamn rightly went on the attack over children in detention (not a word from Beazley over that issue either, as far as I know). She brilliantly skewered Ruddock in Parliament last week over corrupted migration processes. Crean has given free rein to Labor Senators to pursue the truth on SIEVX and to work with other parties for the crucial December 2002 Senate motions. He sustained with great courage a principled position on the unlawful Iraq invasion, and held off heavyhanded US Embassy pressure in a dignified way. His party has protested the cruel and unlawful detention without charge or trial of two Australian citizens by the US military in Cuba. He has in recent days (before the challenge) sent a moving and appropriate message to the Jannah SIEVX victims' memorial website,

He is laying the basis, albeit carefully, for a different kind of Labor politics - that the electorate will see and appreciate.

Beazley has done none of these things. SIEVX is off his screen. I don't think he understands why it matters. I think that his view of Australia's national security may be, at bottom, as limited and flawed as is Howard's. It is all 'boys with toys' stuff. Neither Beazley nor Howard seems to understand that national security has to start with one basic idea - Australians should behave with decency towards our fellow human beings, whatever their race, religion, nationality, or present circumstances. Howard's government violates that idea every day by its actions and rhetoric. Beazley violates it by his deafening silences. Crean is showing that this is an ideal he aspires to as Labor's leader. That is why I pray that Crean holds the Labor leadership, and that he will have a chance after this challenge to consolidate Labor's alternative views - on moral issues that matter, as well as on 'the real issues' of jobs health and education. And I hope his parliamentary party as a whole will get down finally to supporting him.

[Editor's note: Beazley was interviewed by Laurie Oakes on the Sunday program today (8 June) and made it very clear that 'Tampa' and by implication, SIEVX, were for him very much in the past and had no resonance. Transcript of this interview is on the Sunday website: ]

Originally published on Margo Kingston's Web Diary

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