Emad leaves a sinking feeling

Jack Waterford
June 9, 2012
Canberra Times

At the end of Monday's remarkable Four Corners program on a Canberra-based people smuggler, the presenter, Kerry O'Brien, said, ''One serious question to be posed from tonight's story is this: how is it that one small team from a television program with limited resources can expose the facts and the people revealed tonight, yet governments, with all the resources and expertise at their disposal, seemingly cannot? We invited the Australian Federal Police to give an interview to this program, but they declined.''

That had not been the first question which had come to my mind, admiring as I was of the story even as I expected that it would launch a fresh wave of anger against refugees and also distract people from an ongoing story into how AFP and Customs officers had delayed informing authorities about the suspected capsizing of a refugee boat.

The question in my mind was who had spoon-fed a good many details of the story to the ABC. There was evidence, certainly, of an investigative path followed by the journalist, Sarah Ferguson, but a host of close details - for example of the allocation of public housing to members of the wicked ''Captain Emad'' which could have come only from a high official source - and then, on the face of it, improperly. Likewise, Ferguson seemed to have a knowledge of the passage of people - alleged co-conspirators - through refugee assessment which suggested that she had either received an official briefing - of information the Immigration Department usually, virtuously, refuses to give on privacy grounds, or that one of her police or bureaucratic contacts had potentially breached both the law, and public service code of conduct provisions, to tell her.

Not that a fellow journalist necessarily would complain that another has an excellent source in the system, or is opposed, as such, to leaks. But when rival journalists see leaks - and this one was dripping wet - they are inclined to wonder who was leaking, and, as importantly, why. And who might benefit?

Kerry O'Brien's last sentence, above, was a bit of a giveaway. It implied that hardy, plucky, stalking Ferguson had had no co-operation from the AFP. It did not actually say that, but that was hinted by the sentence immediately before. Strictly, O'Brien had said only that police had declined to be interviewed on screen.

But it was made quite clear soon after that police had not declined assistance with the story. At an AFP press conference, Commissioner Tony Negus seemed at first focused only on saying that the AFP knew all about the allegations made by Four Corners, and had been investigating Emad for about two years.

But then he said that Four Corners had approached the AFP in February and ''the AFP provided the journalist with certain material relating to people smuggling operations.

''I should acknowledge the co-operation of the journalist, Ms Sarah Ferguson, and whilst the AFP did not have full visibility on the story she was presenting, at our request she did respect some of the more sensitive elements of this and other ongoing people smuggling investigations,'' he said.

No doubt, crusaders against cruelty to animals might say much the same thing about the award-winning Sarah Ferguson program last year about abattoirs in Indonesia, inspired by some film taken by an animal rights activist and hawked about various current affairs programs. The Ferguson program, with the trademark extra-added personal Sarah Ferguson indignation, picked up on this agenda but did its own work in furthering it. It was perfectly legitimate, and may even have achieved some good in spite of the damage it did to Australia's export trade, but a cunning media manager might think that there was clever work in inspiring the story, in guessing just the reporter to do it, and in succeeding in placing the issue on the public agenda.

Just who might benefit from putting the Captain Emad story on to the agenda?

One can look at one just from the editorials from the usual sources. The Emad story proved, some said, that Australia's borders are rotten and porous, and that the nation is wide upon to attack, that many refugees are frauds and gangsters, that the processes of assessing refugee claims are hopeless and incompetent, and that everything ought to be tightened up. Wonder who might think that?

Another conclusion one might draw by the end of the week is that the AFP, in their professional and competent way,

know all about organised crime, including people smuggling, but that because of legal rigmarole, such as the obsolete need to have actual evidence capable of proving a person guilty, wicked people walk free in the community. All that the AFP can do, in the face of this lily-livered civil libertarian farce, is to alert us to this troubling situating by insinuating stories into the media, in the process, neatly, anonymously and, without any risk of being called to account, sinking a few axes into bureaucratic enemies in Immigration.

There are other effects incidentally served, though I would not suggest that they, or any motive other than the disinterested search for truth, was in the mind of the reporter:

In recent times, criticism of the AFP for using long discredited X-ray technology to assess the age of Indonesian youths involved as crew on refugee boats has increased, as have the diplomatic complications it has caused. Perhaps we now understand these trivial injustices to be mere cracked eggs in the omelette caused by police dealing with the scourge of people smuggling.

ASIO, our security agency, has been under severe criticism for the time it is taking in making refugee assessments, and for some of the negative assessments it has made, the more so because of the obvious difficulties in telling people the bad things ASIO has been told about them. Now we know that, if anything, ASIO is slack and incompetent, and, if anything, too cautious to make correct decisions. If it can't even discover that some people on a boat were professional Indonesian and Malaysian criminals, and ticked off their bogus refugee claims, it must be time for more ''judicious'' types to take over. Meanwhile, the High Court, deliberating about any rights to due process for the ''victims'' of adverse assessments has an opportunity to know the hell on earth already visited upon Australia by their unwelcome and unAustralian decision last year that rights of asylum seekers could not be exported to countries with no respect for rights.

The story, revolving around the disappearance of a boat with 95 refugee applicants on board, also, of course, reiterates the dangers of the boat people's flight, and the wickedness of those who seek to prosper from it. Australian politicians go from this to asserting that this ''proves'' the need to have refugees processed somewhere else, and to ''destroy the people smugglers' business model''. Alas, it's a bit like the drug business. Raising the stakes and making the voyage even more dangerous increases only the price and the profitability of the trade, the corruptibility of officials involved in it, and the misery of people fleeing from wars and persecution that Australia is helping to sustain.

And, no doubt by coincidence, attention is again shifted away from activities, in Indonesia, Malaysia, and source countries such as Sri Lanka, of customs officers, AFP officers, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and agents, informers and helpful officials they use to monitor, warn, and, sometimes, sabotage, the activities of the people smugglers.

The Four Corners story overshadowed a Sydney Morning Herald story the day before. Customs bungled its response to its knowledge that a boat, containing about 105 Hazara Afghans and three Indonesian crew, had foundered. Customs knew about the boat through the AFP, which knew through an informant that the boat was in serious trouble and was taking on water. It took four hours for Customs to decide to notify safety-at-sea people so that a search and rescue mission could be mounted. The delay was so that Customs and the AFP could settle a form of words putting the information on record without disclosing its source. It took three hours after the notification for an Indonesian Navy boat - the closest to respond - to get to the area and find nothing. All are assumed to have drowned.

No one will ever know if the delay had a significant impact - one imagines there would be a lot more curiosity to find out if it had been James Packer's yacht. The official brief was a little apologetic, saying that ''there was no protocol requiring the immediate transfer of information regarding distressed boats'' and the ''circumstances were unfamiliar to officers from all agencies involved. Additionally, agencies were procedurally unprepared for these circumstances.''

Of course, if anyone thinks there is an accountability gap with such agencies, one might consider, if there were any public information available at all, just what ASIS is doing. ASIS has had its operational budget tripled in recent years and I am told that about half of the additional activity is focused on people smuggling rather than terrorism or political or military intelligence. Almost certainly, most of that is not duplicating already extensive AFP intelligence-gathering activities, it is instead in active operations to sabotage and disrupt the traffic.

One can assume that ASIS operatives, and the AFP, do not, knowingly, send boat people off to drown, but it would be very interesting for the public to be aware of what it does in our name, and whether, and by what measure, it is truly in the national interest.

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