A Certain Maritime Incident Tony Kevin (Scribe, $32.95)
When John Howard claimed victory at the 2001 election, it was in no small part due to his tough border protection policies and whipping up of refugee-phobia. In Dark Victory (Allen & Unwin), David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s startling examination of the Tampa crisis, they conclude with the following: “By the time it was all over, Australia had shut its doors to about 2390 boat people. Not many: a couple of full houses at the City Recital Hall where John Howard launched his campaign with a pledge to defend his country’s borders ‘within the framework of the decency for which Australians have always been renowned’.”
Tony Kevin is equally interested in our recent “decency”. His focus, however, is the SIEV-X, an overloaded boat that sank en route from Indonesia to Australia in October 2001. A total of 353 men, women and children asylum seekers died on that fateful journey and yet we still do not know the full facts behind the sinking. Kevin’s book provocatively suggests the Howard Government has resisted calling a judicial enquiry because it was intimately involved in the SIEV-X tragedy. Power at any cost, Kevin says, is the current state of the modern Liberal Party under Howard. This 306-page investigative tour de force uncovers many nuggets of information that leave the reader distinctly uncomfortable. Not dissimilar to former intelligence officer Andrew Wilkie’s Axis Of Deceit (Black Inc), Kevin fears “there are no longer meaningful checks and balances if a prime minister, the national security ministers and their senior advisers are prepared to manipulate information to cover up politically inconvenient truths”.
Our very democracy is in a parlous state, Kevin passionately articulates, and yet both major parties and big media appear content to continue diminishing its checks and balances through outright collusion.
The book asks many more questions than it could ever hope to answer. Initial media reports and Government statements place people-smuggler Abu Quassey as the mastermind behind the SIEV-X operation, but Kevin uncovers information that points to possible Australian and Indonesian government involvement.
Asylum seekers were allegedly forced onto the SIEV-X at gunpoint in Indonesia, despite the fact that they could see the unseaworthy state of the boat. Were Australian officials aware of this practice, and if so, were they encouraging it to facilitate the slowing down of refugees appearing over the horizon from our northern neighbour?
Amazingly, a former Australian Federal Police undercover informant and people smuggler, Kevin Enniss, has already admitted to sabotaging asylum seekers’ boats. In other words, the Howard Government has been paying individuals to engage in the people smuggling trade. As disturbing are Kevin’s claims of complicity among the AFP, the Coastguard and the Defence Force. Strong evidence points to an unprecedented politicisation of these departments to the extent that the long-held policy at sea – rescue those in distress – is being ignored. Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty has already admitted that AFP funding was directed at Indonesian people-smuggling disruption teams. Australia needs whistle-blowers like Tony Kevin and Andrew Wilkie. What is required now are politicians and brave media to support them in their quest for the truth. Antony Loewenstein is a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald and can be reached at [email protected]