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Howard mandarins capturing Labor ministers

  • 22 January 2008

Worrying questions are re-emerging over Australia's people-smuggling disruption program in Indonesia.

Last week, Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans paid a little-publicised visit to Jakarta for talks with ministerial counterparts on border control and people smuggling. According to Bruce Haigh, writing for New Matilda, Evans' visit was intended to stay under wraps. But persistent media enquiries generated some public briefing. Evans gave a stumbling ABC Radio National interview with Steve Cannane on 16 January. This was followed by a report by Jewel Topsfield in The Age on 17 January.

Both stories show a worrying picture of a new minister out of his depth on the sensitive people-smuggling disruption issue, and at risk of policy capture by his department whose present secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, was himself the First Assistant Secretary, Border Control and Compliance Division, in 2000-2001.

In those years, DIMIA and the Australian Federal Police together ran the now notorious covert people-smuggling disruption program in Indonesia, a program that gave rise in 2002 to serious questioning in the Australian Senate, from Senators Faulkner, Ray, and others.

Many asylum-seeker boats, dangerously overloaded, were sinking, experiencing engine failure or cooking-stove fires, or 'losing their way' during this period. We don't know how many boat people's lives were thus lost.

We do know 353 lives were lost when SIEV X sank, and there could have been comparable fatalities on the earlier overcrowded and unsafe Palapa (the boat finally rescued by Tampa after nearly foundering in a storm ), or Olong (the boat towed in a circle by HMAS Adelaide for 22 hours while it slowly foundered). We don't know to what extent, if any, the Australian people-smuggling disruption program may have been involved in the history of such journeys.

Until there is a full-powers judicial enquiry into the Australian disruption program — as called for by repeated Senate motions in 2002-2003 — we will not know.

The same senior public officials — Mick Keelty in AFP and Metcalfe in Immigration — continue to run their agencies, and to advise their new ministers (Robert McClelland and Chris Evans) on Australia's people-smuggling disruption policy. It is thus worrying to see Evans now offering these kinds of public statements in support of the status quo ante (as reported in the Topsfield article):

Australia's controversial disruption program aimed at preventing people smugglers leaving Indonesia will be retained by the Rudd Government, despite Labor expressing deep concern when in