Looking for the SIEV X

by Julie Macken

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the need for a federal anti-corruption commission – and even more talk about the fact that the Morrison government has failed to create just such a commission despite his assurances three years ago that he would do just that.

And that’s kind of the problem about relying on a politician to introduce an anti-corruption commission because the first thing any such commission would do is investigate the Morrison government for corruption.

Like where did Christian Porter get the money from to pay his legal costs? Who made all those decisions about the sports rorts affair? And what about the parking stations? And just by the way do we need to look Morrison’s Pandemic recovery panel – you know the whole gas led recovery headed by gas industry blokes?

And of course these conversations arose because the former NSW Premier felt she had to resign because she would be appearing before the ICAC.

I think we shall all have to wait for the Morrison government to lose the next federal election and Labor to introduce one hopefully in the first 100 days of the new government. But I don’t want to wait that long so I am putting a request in now for the future ICAC to investigate something that happened twenty years ago under the Howard government.

On the 19th of October 2001 the Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X – a boat that would later become known as the SIEV X, capsized somewhere between Indonesia and Christmas Island. It was a 19-metre fishing vessel that had been carrying the asylum seekers, predominantly from Iraq and Afghanistan, to Australia. There were  with 400 people on board. 47 of those people survived and 353 people drowned – 146 children, 142 women and 65 men.

The reason we need to investigate this is because the truth is we don’t know if it was a terrible accident or a crime against humanity committed by the Howard government.

Last Saturday, Toni Hassan, a freelance journalist wrote a beautiful piece about the people that keep the SIEV X memorial in Canberra loved and alive. As Hassan said:

What really happened to SIEV X continues to be shrouded in secrecy. We know the boat sank in international waters – but inside the region that was the focus of Operation Relex, a Defence-led surveillance and disruption operation. Australia has no official maps of the place the boat sank. It did not send rescuers. This fact has always confounded advocates. The question has always been: Did the Howard government know the boat was there, and choose not to act?

Former Labor senator John Faulkner, who took part in a senate inquiry into “A Certain Maritime Incident”, believes SIEV X would have been tracked. A Certain Maritime Incident was the “children overboard” affair in which a boat carrying 223 passengers and crew sank 100 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, a fortnight before SIEV X. All were rescued. The inquiry was expanded to examine SIEV X and other refugee vessels.

Survivors of the SIEV X told the United Nations that two large boats arrived at night and shone spotlights on the water before turning away from people who had begun swimming towards them.

“They called out to the patrol boats for help but to no avail. Many gave up hope then,” Biddulph says. “It’s not clear why Australia did not mount an official rescue when it had HMAS Arunta just four hours away.”

Faulkner, who later became Defence minister, has said that only a judicial inquiry would make the facts surrounding the deaths of such a large number of people in such inexplicable circumstances known.

The closest he came to detailing his beliefs about what happened was in a carefully worded speech on SIEV X to the senate on September 25, 2002: “At no stage do I want to break, nor will I break, the protocols in relation to operational matters involving ASIS [the Australian Secret Intelligence Service] or the AFP [Australian Federal Police]. But those protocols were not meant as a direct or an indirect licence to kill.”

Steve Bidulph told Hassan “A small group around the prime minister were micromanaging the defence assets in the area – and naval staff in particular, who I spoke to, were traumatised about not being able to carry out humanitarian actions as they were trained to. A defence person spoke to me privately about our surveillance abilities and said that it would have been eminently trackable from Australia with the device it was carrying.”

We need a federal ICAC to start with an investigation into what the Howard government knew about SIEVX and what it did or what it failed to do. In all of this we need to remember that corruption is not a victimless crime. It is in fact not only lethal to democratic structures, it also kills people.