Although it’s worth remaining sceptical of those who shed doubt upon the official story, acknowledging their possible accuracy (especially if they’re an insider) is worthwhile too.
Since February 2002, Tony Kevin — a former diplomat who served in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade — has focused on investigating the circumstances surrounding the sinking of an asylum seeker boat named SIEV X. Despite what has been written and said, Kevin is not throwing accusations in his book, A Certain Maritime Incident. In fact, he is asking questions, the sorts of questions some would say needed an airing anyway.
His book explores in detail the boarding of SIEV X, its sinking and the subsequent investigation. By writing this book, it was Kevin’s intention to keep the issue of SIEV X alive. Save for Sydney Morning Herald journalist Margo Kingston, Marg Hutton and a handful of others, Kevin is all but alone in his campaign for a comprehensive judicial inquiry to clear what he believes are murky waters surrounding SIEV X, the Government’s disruption programmes and the intelligence failures that may have led to the deaths of 353 men, women and children.
But his questions have left him “effectively marginalised from the governance-centred society in Canberra” to which he “once comfortably belonged”.
According to Kevin, evil intent is not a necessity: public servants can “sleepwalk” through their duties and not realise the moral gravity of their actions. Thus, safety of life at sea obligations were interfered with because of politicisation of the navy’s prerogatives, says Kevin.
A good deal of the book is spent in contemplating inconsistencies between first hand survivor accounts and Indonesian and Australian government accounts. In this sense, the book works on the theory of sizable numbers: if numerous media are reporting something, then there must be at least an element of truth to that something.
The Senate Committee which investigated the matter consisted of 3 Liberal, 3 Labor, 1 independent and 1 Democrat senator and found “it disturbing that no review of the SIEV X episode was conducted by any agency in the, aftermath of the tragedy” and that it was “extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision making circles.”
The Committee’s Report can be used as proof that the case is closed: “The Committee finds that there were several gaps in the chain of reporting of intelligence, but that even if it had been functioning optimally, it is unlikely that the Australian response to SIEV X would have been different... The Committee cannot find grounds for believing that negligence or dereliction of duty was committed in relation to SIEV X”.
But the committee’s conclusion is flawed, according to Kevin. He opines that “the committee’s report was seriously deficient in respect of SIEV X in terms of its methodology, findings and recommendations” and he is on “safe ground saying this, because opposition senators during and since the presentation of the report have in effect offered a range of comparable criticisms — in the tabling debate, in personal statements forming part of the published report, in related statements elsewhere in the Senate, and in Senate estimates questioning thereafter”
It was the Howard Government’s suppression of bureaucrats and censoring of sections of documents submitted to the inquiring committee that presented an altogether different picture from what the public record shows.
Even those who implicitly trusted the Government’s version of events must have been surprised when Foreign Minister Alexander Downer hastily dismissed Kevin in an ABC radio interview as a “crackpot” with ‘right out there’ commentary, calling his campaigning a “political stunt”. Disagree or agree with the assertions and inferences made in this book, it is undoubtedly one of the best current affairs books released this year.
Originally published in 'Indian Link' in October of 2004.