353 dead: this could be our Watergate
By Tony Kevin
10 May 2002

Human tragedy is the stuff of news. A boat sinking and the death by drowning of 353 men, women and children is a big story in anybody's language. That this tragedy happened to a leaky, overloaded asylum-seeker boat on its way to Christmas Island on October 19 last year, at the height of Operation Relex, a major and forceful Australian military operation to detect and repel asylum-seeker boats, makes it an Australian story.

So it is particularly important for our self-respect as Australians that we try to understand how and why this tragedy happened.

But in fact, after the initial three-day sensational media coverage, the story quickly died. There was no investigative Australian journalism. Compare this to the exhaustive and sustained media coverage of, say, the Thredbo landslide disaster.

But on this story, our media unquestioningly swallowed the Federal Government's spin: that this was an Indonesian maritime disaster, in Indonesian territorial waters, and solely the result of a greedy people smuggler overloading his boat. The media bought the government's convenient line: that what happened to this boat had no connection at all with Operation Relex; that this maritime disaster was nothing to do with us.

The desired lesson having been spelt out - that the tragedy starkly illustrated the dangers of people smuggling - the Howard Government quickly "moved on". Asylum seekers, who had been very briefly acknowledged as victims and fellow human beings, went back to being dehumanised as faceless alien invaders.

The moral sickness at the heart of our ugly election campaign took hold again. The human tragedy to our near north - which has left hundreds of bereaved and grieving families, including many living here in Australia - was forgotten.

From the beginning, I had a strange foreboding about this dreadful event. Somehow it seemed too conveniently timed.

In at least three ways, this tragedy strongly benefited the government's border protection agenda. Overnight, Indonesia abandoned its previous opposition to hosting a people-smuggling conference, for which Australia had been pressing.

Indonesia also from now on quietly accepted the forced towback of asylum-seeker vessels by the Australian navy to the Indonesian territorial waters boundary - something Indonesia had previously said it would resist.

And finally, the tragedy dealt an enormous setback to the people-smuggling industry in Indonesia: it sent a powerful signal to asylum seekers that it was no longer safe for them to try to reach Australia by this means.

If the challenge of people smuggling has now been defeated, I am sure that this event was the turning point in achieving this outcome.

Since January, I have independently researched the story. So far, I have uncovered glaring inconsistencies or discrepancies in the official Australian public record. But the story still has a long way to go.

I am neither a whistleblower from within the defence system nor a Woodward and Bernstein-style young investigative journalist. Basically I am a retired old fart, with some analytical skills from my previous profession - within the Department of Foreign Affairs - and some ability to smell a rat.

What we do know is that by mid-October, Operation Relex was efficiently detecting and intercepting suspected illegal entry vessels (SIEVs).

Its success rate was 11 out of 12. It was a three-stage system: timely and accurate intelligence reporting giving place and time of embarkation, intended destination, and number of passengers; aerial surveillance up to as close as 50 kilometres from Indonesia of ''windows" of sea where boats were expected to appear; naval interception in contiguous zones (40 kilometres north of Christmas Island and Ashmore Island).

For Operation Relex to succeed, information had to flow promptly around the command and information chain in Canberra. But information about SIEV X (the boat that sank), which Coastwatch had from intelligence, and which thus should have also been passed to Operation Relex, was not so passed. As a result, crucial information that could have saved 353 lives did not reach the Australian navy.

I am now satisfied that no navy ship was present at the scene of the sinking, and that the nearest ship, HMAS Arunta, was 150 nautical miles away. I am also satisfied that neither Arunta, nor the navy as a service, knew on October 19 about SIEV X's emergency on that day. I am satisfied that if they had known, they would have tried to rescue survivors.

But other specific questions remain.

Most importantly, we don't know why information that Coastwatch got from intelligence sources about SIEV X's embarkation on October 18 or 19 was not passed to Operation Relex and the navy at the same time that Coastwatch first got it. We don't know yet when Coastwatch got this information. Don't all these organisations depend on the same central intelligence coordination headquarters? Did not Operation Relex require timely and accurate intelligence about SIEV boats coming down from Indonesia? What was different about this boat - why was it treated so differently from all the other SIEVs?

There are two issues about which I raise questions: my concerns about what happened to information on this boat in Canberra, and my concerns that, in the absence of a detailed account, the sinking itself could be seen to have possibly been a managed event.

On the second issue, we await further public information from Indonesia, which I hope will sooner or later emerge.

On the first issue, I hope that the Senate committee into the "children overboard" affair will try to throw further light on the inconsistencies in what ministers and officials have said.

Let us suppose that a timely intelligence report had come down from Indonesia to Canberra on Thursday, October 18, saying that a boat had left Bandar Lampung early that morning in a grossly overloaded and unseaworthy condition, and that it was not expected to reach Christmas Island. It is reasonable to expect any intelligence report on the boat's departure would have also contained that information.

If such a report had immediately gone to Operation Relex, I expect that one or more of the following actions would have been decided: informing the Indonesian search-and-rescue organisation of an expected emergency, directing air surveillance of international waters where the boat might first appear, moving HMAS Arunta into a position to be ready to effect a quick rescue if necessary, once the boat crossed the boundary of Indonesia's contiguous zone.

If those things had been done, many lives might have been saved when the boat sank - some 30 hours after its departure.

This is not what the Senate's "children overboard" committee was first set up to examine, but it might in the end prove to be the committee's most important task. This could become an Australian Watergate.

Tony Kevin worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs between 1968 and 1998. He was Australian ambassador to Cambodia from 1994 to 1997. This is an edited extract of his speech in Canberra last night to a refugee action committee.

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