Clear the air on SIEV-X sinking

September 28 2002

For many weeks the Labor leader in the Senate, John Faulkner, has been trying to make what seems a far-fetched connection. It is between the sinking of an overloaded people smuggler's boat last year - with the loss of 353 lives - and the Australian policy of "disruption" of people smuggling activity. Senator Faulkner's persistent questioning at the children overboard inquiry has been building over many weeks. In Parliament on Thursday it came down to this: "What disruption activities are undertaken at the behest of, or with the knowledge of, or broadly authorised by, the Australian Government?" He raised the awful possibility of sabotage.

Government outrage - of the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, for example - has been volcanic, but unconvincing. Mr Downer says it has never been government policy to endanger lives by sabotaging boats carrying asylum seekers. "An Australian government wouldn't do that and, what's more, for Senator Faulkner to suggest so, I think, is disgraceful." He said: "The Australian Government certainly did not sabotage any boats. Did anyone ever sabotage a boat? I've no idea. But did the Australian Government ever sabotage a boat, or was a boat sabotaged or sunk on the instructions of the Australian Government? If I may say so, anybody would know that no Australian government would do that."

These stout denials serve as much to strengthen as to weaken the doubts Senator Faulkner has sown. Of course the Australian Government is not in the business of killing people or sabotaging boats. But formal denials of an official policy of sabotaging asylum seeker boats are one thing. They should readily be accepted. But they will still leave reasonable doubts about other dark possibilities implicit in Senator Faulkner's questioning.

Above all, there is the serious question whether, as result of a broad official policy of disrupting the activities of people smugglers in Indonesia, a line has been crossed by people low or even outside the formal chain of command so that by some unauthorised action damage has been inflicted on a boat carrying asylum seekers with catastrophic results.

This question will not be answered until the full story of the "suspected illegal entry vessel" - designated SIEV-X by Australian authorities - is known. When SIEV-X sank on October 19 last year, 353 of the 420 or so people crammed on board lost their lives. There is much dispute about how much Australian authorities knew about SIEV-X before it set sail. There is even less known about the nature and extent of the policy of "disruption" of people smuggling, which Australia has pursued in Indonesia with varying degrees of co-operation from the Indonesian authorities.

Senator Faulkner's demand for a judicial inquiry is one way to ensure the Australian public learns more about this murky business. A simpler and more direct way to the truth, however, would be for the Government to allow key witnesses in the bureaucracy - whom it so far has prevented from appearing before the inquiry - to give evidence. To clear the air, that should be done.


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