Questions still abound ten years after the sinking of SIEV X

Saturday Extra Transcript
ABC Radio
22 October 2011

Geraldine Doogue: Ten years on from the sinking of SIEV X, a Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel-SIEV-on which 353 people perished, the questions about how to stop asylum seekers from coming to Australia through unauthorised channels continues to bedevil us.

But this weekend, despite the unresolved backdrop, it's time merely to mark this solemn anniversary of an event that continues to deeply trouble many Australians, while at the same time probably not even registering in the minds of the majority of us.

Last week the Greens called for a judicial inquiry into the SIEV X sinking, but they were opposed by Labor and the opposition-rare bipartisan behaviour. It isn't the first time an inquiry's been called; I daresay it won't be the last, as there appear to be many questions still left unanswered by the senate inquiry led by John Faulkner back in 2002.

Joining me to discuss this from Canberra is Steve Biddulph. Steve's well known to Radio National listeners as a prominent psychologist/commentator, the author of books such as The Secret of Happy Children, The New Manhood and Raising Boys. He also became very involved in building a monument in Canberra to those who perished, and wrote a challenging column on the subject this week in the Fairfax press. Also on the line is Christine Milne, senator for Tasmania and deputy leader of the Australian Greens. She called for the inquiry in the senate last week. Welcome to you both.

Christine Milne: Thank you, Geraldine.

Steve Biddulph: Thank you, Geraldine.

Geraldine Doogue: First to you, Steve. Why should we still care about this event, ten years on?

Steve Biddulph: Well, because it was a huge... first of all, primarily, it was an enormous loss of life; it was the biggest and the worst thing that had happened in or around Australia since World War II. And that was what got us concerned. We were just a small bunch of church people in a country town in New South Wales who thought we wanted to remember. And I think the contrast... if this had been a jumbo jet loaded up with rich westerners that had gone into the ocean, there would have been enormous grief, memorialising, and we would have known every name and we would have found out why it happened. And the fact that they were then nameless people really touched us because of our beliefs in the value of every human being.

And so we decided to build a memorial in our own town. And then eventually to build one... we decided that, as more questions came to light, that it was a national problem and a national disgrace and that we would build something here in Canberra, and we spent five years doing that.

Geraldine Doogue: You wrote in this, I think, very interesting column in the Sydney Morning Herald this week, you write, 'Nothing about the SIEV X story adds up.' And you went on, 'A proper investigation needs to be carried out to either set aside our fears, or confirm them.' Now, in summary, what for you doesn't add up, Steve, and what are your fears?

Steve Biddulph: Yes, nothing about the SIEV X voyage was normal. The people-because we came to know many of the survivors of the SIEV X and they told us what happened; that they were bussed in a fleet of buses halfway across Indonesia, the buses were blacked out, you couldn't see in or out, and they were escorted by motorcycle escort, they were kept at the hotel belonging to the chief of police in Bandar Lampung. Worst of all, they were loaded onto the vessel at gunpoint, Geraldine. The vessel was very decrepit and these were people that were very sensible people and they saw that it couldn't possibly survive a voyage. And one family tried to get off and the father was pistol whipped by a policeman and forced back on.

During the voyage, in the early hours of the voyage, it was shadowed by an aircraft. And the most disturbing feature of it was that when the boat did eventually sink in very heavy seas, that the following night, when many of the people still were afloat, still surviving clinging to wreckage, two military vessels, which can only have been Indonesian, appeared on the site of the wreckage. How they found them in the dark in a storm is a huge question. And many of the people thought they were safe, and they thought they can just swim towards these boats. And the boats turned their lights off and sailed away. Probably 100 people died since, between the time of those boats being there and losing hope in the long hours in the water.

And so finally Senator Faulkner himself made those incredible words in his senate speech that he wouldn't compromise the provisions of ASIS or the Australian Federal Police, but those provisions did not constitute a licence to kill.

Geraldine Doogue: Yes, I must say I've got them in front of me and they are incredible: 'I intend to keep asking questions till I find out... I intend to keep pressing for an independent judicial inquiry into these very serious matters... these protocols were not meant as a direct or an indirect licence to kill.'

Now, I will come to you in a moment, Christine Milne, I just want to get this out first. You've spoken to Senator Faulkner about this, haven't you?

Steve Biddulph: Yes.

Geraldine Doogue: What does he say publicly? What does he say to you in private-or can you say?

Steve Biddulph: Well, yes, essentially John Faulkner knows what happened. His investigations eventually led him to really know what took place. He doesn't feel at liberty to say that. He had it as Labor policy to have a judicial inquiry and we still would like him to go ahead and do that. He's the one man in the country that knows what happened, who has... and I know he's a man of conscience and integrity, so I hope one day he'll do that.

At the moment, Christine is the person who's given us the most support and has been relentless in pursuing this and so we also look to the Greens as our hope of a party that still has principles. Perhaps talk to her as well.

Geraldine Doogue: Well, Christine, both the government and opposition, as I said-in a rare act of bipartisanship, I think-voted down your request into an inquiry. Do you know why?

Christine Milne: Well, the excuse that they give is that it was Labor Party policy until 2004 to have a judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the SIEV X and the circumstances before it left Indonesia, but after the 2004 election under Kim Beazley, all Labor policies were wiped, including this one, and it has never been restored as Labor Party policy. That's the official answer you get from Labor Party members as to why they voted it down.

But I feel that it's got more to do with the fact that the current Labor government wants to maintain what is an inhumane regime in terms of asylum seekers and doesn't want a lot of questions asked, particularly about the core concern. And that is essentially what Australia's intelligence agency knew at the time of the sinking of the SIEV X and also what has happened since, Geraldine. Because since the sinking of the SIEV X, we've also had three more ships that have sunk; two without trace and one of course, tragically, off Christmas Island, which we all know about.

Now, out of those three ships, it's estimated that 105 Hazara Afghans were on one; 97 Iraqi and Iranians on another; and we know that 50 more people drowned at Christmas Island. So we go to this question of what is the role of the People Smuggling Intelligence Analysis Team, and that's something that Tony Kevin has written about recently. And it's what we want to know is what did the Australian Shoal Bay tracking station know about the SIEV X?

Now they were tracking everything. We assume because we know there was disruption activity occurring in Indonesia before these vessels left, we want to know whether Australia was instrumental in setting up any kind of disruption in relation to the SIEV X, what did it know, what did its partners in the Indonesian government know and its own network of informants-because really this is the crux of it.

We have an intelligence agency that passes on information on a need to know basis, so it goes up the chain slowly. So they tell the operational Border Protection Command what they think they need to know operationally and so on, and that's because governments don't want the people in the People Smuggling Intelligence Analysis Team to ever have to come and say what actually happened and so everybody else appears before senate inquiries or in the media and can say they didn't know because it wasn't actually passed on to them.

So that's where I want to really focus. What did Australia know and what did we choose to do?

Steve will also confirm that the HMAS Arunta was 140 km from the site at the time the vessel sank. If the Indonesians knew where it was, because the ships turned up there, presumably Shoal Bay tracking station knew where it was. Why wasn't the Arunta called to come straight to the site? Was it given instructions to stand off? They're the sort of questions we need to know.

Geraldine Doogue: As somebody said to me who had a father in the navy, 'Look, with such a serious set of allegations, we saw how the forces behaved after Tampa, and so on,' in other words, people couldn't keep it in, they had to bring out their concerns, 'we would have heard by now if something truly nefarious had occurred, because the forces wouldn't be able to keep it within.' How do you answer people like that?

Christine Milne: Well, it's my great hope, Geraldine, that people will come forward and say exactly what did happen. After 10 years, I would hope that people who were working at the Shoal Bay tracking station, who were crew or command on the Arunta, people who worked in the prime minister's department, there must be people who can answer these questions. And they must ask why every inquiry has deliberately precluded any investigation of the circumstances leading up to the departure of the ship, including those disruption activities.

So, yes, I understand that people... that you might think if it was so serious people would have come forward. On the other hand, given the high level of punishment that whistleblowers tend to come under in Australia, I'm not surprised that people are reluctant to come forward.

Geraldine Doogue: All right. I wanted to come back to you, Steve, but I'm afraid the clock is just getting away from me. I know there are a whole range of activities planned this weekend.

Look, thank you to you both very much indeed for being with us.

Christine Milne: Thank you.

Steve Biddulph: It's a pleasure.

Geraldine Doogue: Steve Biddulph, a psychologist well known I think to many. I interviewed him several times on Life Matters. But read his piece in the Sydney Morning Herald this week. It's very interesting.

And Christine Milne, senator for Tasmania and the deputy leader of the Australian Greens.

I think that's a story to watch-mind you, we've been watching it for quite a while.


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