SIEV-X questions sink leadership credentials


SIEVX We have now had our first opportunity to read excerpts from the memoirs of former deputy Liberal leader Peter Costello, which were published in the Fairfax press at the weekend ahead of tomorrow's release of the book. For most of this year, the widely anticipated work has focused public attention on who would have better led the Coalition into the 2007 Federal Election.

This discussion has assumed a narrow definition of leadership that does not go beyond the ability to win elections. It makes sense, as far as it goes. John Howard won more elections than any other prime minister since Menzies, therefore he is Australia's best Prime Minister since Menzies. The supposition that Costello might have had more chance than Howard of defeating Labor in 2007, is enough to conclude that the Liberal leadership should have passed to Costello some time before the election.

The assumptions underlying these commonly accepted propositions have rarely been questioned. If the discussion of recent months had included scrutiny of the qualities required for leadership, we might have revised them to include moral fortitude.

If morality becomes a criterion for leadership, we then need to ask different questions. Such questions are asked by a study that was released last week, just ahead of Costello's memoirs. It is The SIEV-X: Insidious Conspiracy or Fortuitous Tragedy?, a seven-page position paper published by the Melbourne-based Christian lobby Social Policy Connections.

As is known, though not so widely, 146 children, 142 women and 65 men died when an old wooden fishing vessel being used by people smugglers, sank while en route from Indonesia to Australia on 19 October 2001.

The paper's author Emmy Silvius points out that a month before the SIEV-X sank, John Howard revealed that he had authorised 'saturation surveillance' of international waters between Australia and Indonesia.

Howard said: 'We don’t, in this nation, sink boats … But we’re certainly talking about acts which are designed to deter.'

But deterrence became disruption, which in turn could very well have become sabotage — the Australian Government's answer to the French Government's Rainbow Warrior deterrence bid.

Then Minister for Immigration Philip Ruddock claimed some time afterwards that physically disrupting the work of people smugglers was one of the main reasons for the decline in asylum seeker boats coming to Australia. Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty explained that the AFP provided equipment, training and travel costs to those Indonesian authorities involved in disruption activities.

So far none of the ministers involved in the people smuggling disruption program has categorically denied that the disruption program in Indonesia ever involved sabotage of a people smuggling vessel. The Howard Government ignored Senate Committee advice and Senate motions calling for a judicial inquiry into the sinking of the SievX. As Silvius concludes:

'This has to be the lowest point of Australian politics. How is it possible that a government can get away with covering up the largest Australian-related civilian catastrophe in the history of this country?'

The voices of political leaders with moral backbone should have been heard above the silence that surrounded the handling of this issue. They were not, as leadership efforts were focussed on issues such as border protection and economic prosperity, in the interest of winning elections.

Social Policy Connections

Michael MullinsMichael Mulins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: michael mullins, peter costello memoir, leadership, moral fortitude, siev-x



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Existing comments

Covering up SievX was our "lowest point" because tnat is exactly where Howard took us.
Bill Dowsley | 15 September 2008

A fine article, Michael. The nation's shame is that not one politician had the moral courage to speak out about SIEVX and the behaviour of Howard, Ruddock, Downer and the shabby gang they led. If not silent, they were busy raising other issues to distract attention from their lack of backbone and obligations to leadership. I include the Labor Party and the self-serving "minor minnows" in this criticism too. Disgraceful.
Richard Flynn | 15 September 2008

Thankyou Michael for keeping the Sinking of the SIEV X in the public eye. This was a tragic and unnecessary loss of so many children, women and men fleeing murderous regimes - trying to seek safety in Australia. If justice and fairness is to be served a full enquiry must be held and those ministers and police associated with the disription programme called to answer.
Kate Maclurcan | 15 September 2008

A group I was involved with self-published a school's case study on the SIEV-X a few years ago. Copies of the draft can be viewed here. Our experience since then has been that younger people are intrigued by the story. This may be an important avenue for those interested in this issue to explore further.
Donnie Maclurcan | 15 September 2008

A powerful piece, Michael. I don't think many people realise the scale of the tragedy - and I had certainly never heard of the possibility of sabotage. I hope the questions never go away - not till the fullest revulsion at Howard and Ruddock's immigration policies is widely felt.
Joe Castley | 15 September 2008

A timely reminder of an appallingly cruel event. If only to ensure that such a thing can never happen again there is an urgent need for an independent judicial inquiry which would identify those responsible for what happened and those responsible for the quite disgraceful cover up.
David | 15 September 2008

SievX, so abominable that it was, must surely be contested as the 'lowest point' in the Howard reign. Two other acts (on consecutive days) qualify in pure democratic terms and they are when two (US & Chinese)foreign armed agencies were not only allowed into our National Parliament but also prevented Australians from entering. For me, this was breathtaking.
John Salmon
John Salmon | 15 September 2008

Thank you Michael for your well reasoned article. No-one did much as really none of us actually knew!! When questions were asked there was general obfuscation all round. A prevailing generalisation was "they were only refugees anyway" and therefore not worth worrying too much about. It is a shameful part of our recent history for which no-one will take any blame!!
Rosemary Keenan WA
Rosemary Keenan | 15 September 2008

Thanks Michael. Until all members of John Howard’s Cabinet are expelled from the Liberal Party, be it posthumously or otherwise, SIEV-X reminds us that the Liberal Party has no moral authority in this land.

David Arthur | 15 September 2008

For those who have not seen the SIEV-X memorial in Canberra, I can strongly recommend a visit. It's tucked out of the way down near the lake where it is unlikely to be stumbled across, but the sheer scale of the memorial reflects the enormity of this tragedy, one for which Howard and Ruddock and others in that government ought one day to be held accountable.
Warwick | 16 September 2008


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