'There Was No Conspiracy': Allan Hawke
8 September 2002
Secretary of Defence, Allan Hawke, spoke at length about SIEVX in a speech in Canberra on Friday. His statements on SIEVX are reproduced in full here:
SIEV X - Suspected Illegal Entrant Vessel X - is the label most commonly given to an overloaded boat that left an Indonesian port in October 2001 and sank with the loss of over 350 lives.
The "X" stands for unknown, not number ten in the series, and in Defence it was more commonly referred to as the Abu Quassey vessel after the people smuggler concerned.
Since April this year, SIEV X has been the subject of detailed and intense media reporting and analysis. Much of this alleges a conspiracy and coverups in Defence and elsewhere. It has been labelled "Australia’s Watergate" by Tony Kevin and "The largest Australia-related catastrophe in history" by Robert Manne. The reputation and integrity of Australia’s Defence Force and the Government that directs it have been impugned by these and other commentators.
The ADF has a hard-earned and proud history of rescuing people in distress – and of providing such assistance unconditionally. Ignoring that, much of the speculation about SIEVX has centred on accusations that Defence either turned a blind eye to the situation or did not do enough to prevent or limit the consequent loss of life.
So what did Defence know and do?
The vessel seems to have sunk on or about 3pm local time on 19 October 2001.
In the days leading up to then, we were interested in the "imminent" departure of three vessels from Indonesia for Christmas Island. Information on the time and place of departure was rarely accurate and would change from one report to the next. Vessels reported to have left either returned to the port of departure or to some other port in Indonesia.
As given in evidence to the Senate Select Committee by the then Head of Coastwatch, Rear Admiral Bonser, reports on a possible Abu Quassey vessel commenced as early as August 2001.
Coastwatch received information that the vessel was expected to depart, or had departed, Indonesia on four different dates in August, anywhere within a seven-day block in September, and on five separate dates in October. The reports immediately prior to its sinking had SIEV X departing a number of locations from central to western Java.
Even now, its departure port is still not definitive, reports suggesting it sailed from two different locations in Sumatra.
Our efforts to detect and intercept the people smugglers’ vessels included a comprehensive surveillance operation in Australian and international waters between Java and Christmas Island.
Daily P-3C Orion flights of four to five hours’ duration covered the 440 km by 280 km surveillance area. HMAS ARUNTA and its embarked helicopter patrolled the area closer to Christmas Island, ready to intercept vessels after they had been identified by the Orions and as they approached the contiguous zone, 24 nautical miles from Christmas Island.
This surveillance and interception operation continued unabated throughout the period 17 to 23 October.
Due to the ship’s helicopter being unserviceable on 19 October, an additional Orion flight was launched in direct support of the ship and was on task from 1644 to 2115 Christmas Island time.
This Orion was tasked to give priority to the area that the helicopter would normally have monitored, that is the South West and South East segments as shown on this slide. The flight used up more fuel than normal due to poor weather (which degraded radar performance and required close track spacing) and the different operational mode required at night to identify contacts. After searching the Southern areas, it had insufficient fuel remaining to cover the lower priority Northern segments of the area. The standard morning Orion flight had earlier that day covered the North West and North East search areas from 0900 to 1030 under similar adverse weather conditions.
None of the four surveillance flights comprising some 19 hours on task flown in the period 17 to 19 October detected the SIEV X. Nor were any distress messages ever received by Australian authorities. And nothing in the intelligence collection, analysis and reporting provided any reason to change the standard surveillance pattern.
The 20 October Orion flight flew over the area where SIEVX may have been if the SBS Dateline report is accurate, but it did not detect anything of concern. The weather at this time continued to be very poor with low cloud and rain in all areas.
Without any indication that there was a vessel in distress or an accurate position, I’m told that sighting survivors in the water under the prevailing weather conditions would be highly improbable.
After the SIEV X sank on 19 October, we received reports that the vessel was small and overloaded. This, in itself, was not unusual, as most SIEVs would have fitted this description at the time.
On 22 October, three days after the vessel sank, Coastwatch received information which they believed corroborated the departure of the vessel and led them to assess it might be overdue. They also noted that this was not unusual and might be due to a range of factors including diversions. Once again, this did not constitute a declared distress situation. The first time that Defence knew the vessel had sunk was from reports on 23 October after the survivors had been returned to Indonesia.
Some commentators have made much about where the vessel may or may not have sunk. Defence has no first hand knowledge of where it actually sank and cannot verify where the survivors were found.
You may recall some survivors reporting the presence of two ships with searchlights, which they believed to be naval vessels.
Let me say quite categorically that no Australian Navy ships were anywhere near the vicinity of where Dateline reports the survivors were recovered (SLIDE). The nearest of our ships was HMAS ARUNTA which was here near Christmas Island at the time.
Defence welcomes informed public scrutiny. We resent unwarranted accusations and slurs on our character.
The Minister for Defence made available the experts involved in Operation RELEX to the Senate Select Committee inquiring into these matters. These witnesses included Commanders and staff at all levels of the command chain for the operation. The evidence provided to the Committee by Defence personnel offers a somewhat different perspective to that which relies on speculation, hearsay and selective reporting elsewhere.
In summary, there is nothing, I repeat, nothing, that Defence could have done in relation to the tragic fate of SIEV X. At the time, Defence had conflicting reports of departure, ports and times and no information that SIEV X was in distress, let alone the locality of where it sank.
The ADF is justifiably proud of its record in safety of life at sea situations, as demonstrated by the bravery of our sailors in rescuing the people from other SIEVs when those vessels sank or were in difficulty. Defence and our Service personnel reject unfounded assertions that we were somehow complicit in the fate of the SIEV X.
There was no conspiracy to let innocent people die. SIEV X was a human tragedy. But it is not one for which Defence is responsible.
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