1. Sunk without trace
While we mourn the dead children of MH17 and Gaza, let us remember the dead children of SIEV X. That’s the name, the infamous name given to a nameless Indonesian boat that left Bandar Lampung on an October day 13 years ago – and was to become the name of a great tragedy when, a day after its departure for Christmas Island, it sank in a storm 70km south of Java.
It created a storm of its own, occurring in the middle of John Howard’s re-election campaign. Arguably it helped him win it. The day we learnt of SIEV X’s sinking I thought the disaster would break our hearts and change our ruthless policies towards asylum seekers. Instead it hardened them. The death toll was 353, of whom 146 were children and 142 were women. We were complicit in those deaths, yet we did not hang our heads in shame. Instead we voted for even tougher policies.
The human cargo recalled the cruel stacking on a slaver: 421 people crammed onto a boat a mere 19 metres long. Like many of the other SIEVs – the acronym stands for Suspected Irregular Entry Vessel – it leaked like a sieve.
Like many others, it was doomed. This one sank in waters that Brandis-speak might describe as “disputed”. International waters but within Indonesia’s search-and-rescue responsibility, and also within Australia’s aerial border protection surveillance zone. The Indonesians failed the victims of SIEV X, but so did we. We claimed ignorance and poor weather as excuses for failing to identify or help the stricken vessel.
The subsequent Senate Select Committee inquiry into “a certain maritime incident” (as bizarre a euphemism as any ever coined by a bureaucracy) mainly focused on a different scandal – “children overboard” – but its terms of reference extended to SIEV X. The report was unflinching in its findings. “It is 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 concrern being raised within intelligence and decision-making circles.”
SIEV X and the Tampa affair two months earlier had Howard claiming that his policies would “stop the boats”. Thirteen years later? Our policies remain as cruel, our attitudes as devoid of compassion. And they are “our” policies. Shamefully, Kim Beazley capitulated to John Howard and Philip Ruddock. (Ruddock was the minister who insisted on wearing an Amnesty International badge throughout his term, despite Amnesty’s protests. The symbol of that great organisation is a candle shining through barbed wire – when Ruddock oversaw an era of putting refugees behind it.)
The policy of “stopping the boats”, whatever the political or human costs, and the policy of putting asylum seekers into concentration camps (and I use that term accurately – check your Oxford Dictionary) has remained bipartisan. One of the reasons I opposed the leadership (sic) of Mark Latham is that he wanted to out-Ruddock Ruddock, while neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard showed an iota of moral courage. We do not offer refuge. We do not offer asylum. We do not offer amnesty.
The Coalition continues to offer barbed wire, not the light shining through. And Labor’s light on the hill has been extinguished.
The SIEV X was a tragedy, for the victims and their families. It was, and remains, a tragedy for this nation, too, reminding us that the White Australia policy lives on. On the 13th anniversary of SIEV X tomorrow, many would like to attend a service at Canberra’s SIEV X memorial. A memorial that Howard fought to prevent being erected. Might I suggest you light a candle at home? Phil Ruddock might lend you his.
Phillip Adams, The Weekend Australian Magazine 18-19.10.14
Senator John Faulkner’s attempt to explore possible Federal Police complicity in the sabotage of asylum-seeker boats
2. Don’t play politics with Ebola
Australians must not be put at risk without evacuation plans
The Ebola outbreak, as former Australian Medical Association president Kerryn Phelps said yesterday, “is a time for pragmatism, not blind altruism”. As in any international crisis, the federal government’s first responsibility is to protect Australians, a point that apparently has eluded deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek and opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King. Both these members of Labor’s Left want Australian teams dispatched to the Ebola zones of West Africa. They should not be trying to score points over such a life and death issue and their attitude differs markedly from the opposition’s bipartisan approach to Australia’s response to fighting Islamic State terrorism.
Australia’s contribution of $18 million to Ebola relief is parsimonious and could be doubled, at least. But Tony Abbott was right yesterday when he said there was world of difference “between volunteers going and displaying selfless humanitarianism, which I praise, and the government ordering Australian defence personnel to go to an area where we don’t have the capacity to evacuate people.” Ms Plibersek, a former health minister, should understand what’s at stake.
Australia has sought assurances from the US, Britain and European countries that Australian aid workers infected with the deadly disease in West Africa would be treated in one of those places. But no such guarantees have been given. The government has also been warned that Australians who contracted Ebola would be unlikely to survive the 30-hour flight home. If such a tragedy occurred, the public, would have every reason to be angry with a government for risking lives without watertight evacuation plans.
The debacle at a Texas hospital that resulted in two American nurses contracting Ebola has underlined why Australia must be as well prepared as possible to treat patients here. And if the disease spreads as rapidly as the World Health Organisation expects, compulsory quarantining of travellers arriving from West Africa is likely to be unavoidable. It is also prudent for Australia to be ready to send field hospitals and workers to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific if the virus spreads to this region. But that is no reason to take the irresponsible course being advocated by Labor.
Editorial, The Weekend Australian – The Heart of the Nation, 18-19.10.14
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