A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of the SIEV X
320 pages $32.95
REVIEW BY SARAH STEPHEN
Introducing a discussion with Tony Kevin, author of A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of the SIEV X, Phillip Adams, the presenter of ABC Radio National's Late Night Live program, said on August 18: "Imagine a jumbo jet flying towards Australia with, say, 400 Italian tourists. It crashes into the ocean. Three hundred and fifty three people die, mainly women and kids. Now that would be a huge event, one of the biggest media stories of any year. Well, something like that did happen on October 19, 2001. But it wasn't a jumbo jet, it was leaky boat. And it wasn't full of Italian tourists, it was full of asylum seekers."
This analogy is a timely reminder of a core issue in the SIEV X scandal — the fact that the sinking of the SIEV X became a media event only insofar as it helped the Howard government highlight the dangers of people smuggling. It was never treated as the huge tragedy it really was. This was to some extent made possible by the racist hysteria and hostility whipped up by the government and the mass media in the lead-up to the 2001 federal elections, which created a political climate where asylum seekers were portrayed as the "enemy" whose "invasion" Australia had to be protected from.
In any other situation it would be considered a scandal that, even to this day, Australian authorities refuse to release a list of the names of those who died in the tragedy. The Australian Federal Police claims that it cannot release the list because to do so might compromise a "confidential source" and an "ongoing investigation". Tony Kevin wrote on August 21, 2003: "In what other major public tragedy — New York Trade Center, Bali bombing — could the victims' names not be released for such spurious reasons? How grossly insulting to the human dignity of the victims' families."
A Certain Maritime Incident is a remarkable achievement, the culmination of three years of tireless work by Kevin to push for a full judicial inquiry into the sinking of the SIEV X. It is a meticulous presentation of the facts, piecing together in remarkable detail the story of the SIEV X, based entirely on information available on the public record.
The book is an essential read for all those involved in the campaign for a more humane refugee policy. But it also has an important audience among those concerned with the potential for government lies and deception on a scale far more sinister than the "children overboard" incident.
Kevin is convinced that Australian and Indonesian authorities knew about the SIEV X and its sinking. In contrast to government and defence department claims that no-one knows where the SIEV X sank, Kevin provides four separate pieces of evidence that it sank within the Operation Relex surveillance zone, which was being closely monitored by the Australian navy. He estimates that the SIEV X was moving in that zone for almost six daylight hours before it sank.
What's more, the government's argument that it was not possible to confirm where the boat sank became "the legal shelter for a claimed Australian inability to charge [people smuggler] Abu Quassey with homicide in Indonesia or Australia even though the boat had departed from Indonesia, and Australia was its destination".
Kevin was deeply disappointed with the report produced by the Senate inquiry into the incident, the product of hundreds of hours of testimony from 60 witnesses and written evidence, which generated 2181 pages of transcript, describing it to Phillip Adams on August 18 as "bland, watered down and, frankly speaking, misleading".
Reflecting on the flaws and shortcomings of the inquiry, Kevin writes in A Certain Maritime Incident: "Witnesses representing Australian government agencies were able, at will, to refuse to answer questions, and their agencies were free to decide how much of the documentary evidence they submitted would be blacked out. The inquiry heard no evidence from the survivors of the sinking or from bereaved family members, though many were in Australia and could have been invited to testify."
The Senate committee set aside Kevin's testimony, claiming it had been tested and found to be without foundation.
Like former Office of National Assessments analyst Andrew Wilkie and Michael Scrafton, a former advisor to then defence minister Peter Reith, Kevin received the sort of treatment common to whistleblowers who lift the lid on government secrets which have the potential to do great damage.
Kevin was mocked as a conspiracy theorist. He recounts: "Even some well-informed and well-motivated commentators, with high public standing in the debate on human rights for asylum seekers, expressed views in public and private that I had 'gone too far'... even that I was shaping facts to fit my preconceptions."
His book was knocked back by two mainstream Australian publishers before being taken up by Scribe.
People have a "presumption of regularity", Kevin observes. They cannot believe that it is possible for a government to do nothing to prevent 353 people drowning.
David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, in the first edition of their book Dark Victory, spent only 14 pages out of 350 in exploring the sinking of the SIEV X, and while revealing some significant snippets of new information, still dismissively concluded: "Australia did not kill those who drowned on the SIEV X."
Maybe not, but did Australian authorities know about the sinking and could they have prevented the drownings? This is the real question which remains unanswered.
Griffith University professor of politics Patrick Weller, author of a review of A Certain Maritime Incident published in the September 4 Canberra Times, provides a classic example of those who hold to the presumption of regularity. He questioned the absence of whistleblowers coming forward to back Kevin's allegations: "If such a dastardly plan had been concocted, could it be kept quiet? No-one has come forward to provide any corroboration for the darker images that Kevin seeks to portray, I may be too ingenuous, or too cynical, to believe that all those involved would keep quiet about mass murder."
The absence of whistleblowers could equally point to the depth of the cover-up, and the absence of individuals with the courage necessary to break ranks and come forward with what Australian authorities really knew.
Consider how long it took Scrafton to come forward to expose a comparatively small lie — three years. He certainly wasn't going to do it while he was still employed in the public service, partly because of intimidation by his superiors, partly to protect his career, but also because he didn't think it was appropriate to do so.
There will be whistleblowers, just as Kevin is convinced that one day there will be a judicial inquiry. Perhaps it will take a change of government to break the spell. The Labor Party has verbally committed itself to such an inquiry, but is at the moment running dead on the issue of the SIEV X, so it may take a renewed campaign to see such an inquiry set up.
Reading Kevin's book will help to generate a renewed anger and determination to get to the bottom of what really led to the deaths of 353 people after the sinking of the SIEV X.
From Green Left Weekly, September 15, 2004.
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