Personal reflections on the Christmas Island tragedy


A Certain Maritime IncidentFor me, last week’s sad events offer an eerie replay of my questioning of public accountability about the SIEV X tragedy during ten months in 2002. In just three days, I have been reminded of how efficiently Australia quarantines difficult questions that threaten to disturb our national self-esteem.

Marg Hutton, my former SIEV X research collaborator, advised me promptly when news broke of the tragedy on Wednesday. Our reactions were similar: why had this SIEV not been safely intercepted? 

I emailed a few trusted colleagues in public life and media, suggesting that the responsibility of Australia’s border protection authorities is to detect and safely intercept in the vicinity of Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef all incoming SIEV boats, whoever has sent them. This is a requirement of the law of maritime rescue – the duty of care to preserve all human life in peril at sea. 

Australia has an efficient and powerful long-distance radar, JORN. We could normally expect that the boat's movements would be registered on JORN long before – probably hundreds of miles before – it got anywhere close to the stormy waters around Christmas Island. JORN’s capabilities and limitations were no secret – anyone could read about them on the web.

Using  JORN-sourced voyage data, our border security ships are tasked to go out and intercept SIEVs. A border protection interception boat should have been sent out long before this asylum-seeker boat got anywhere near Christmas Island's dangerous cliffs in stormy weather. This tragedy, like SIEV X, suggested that something may have gone wrong in the border protection chain of information and command.

I spoke to a senior Labor Party politician on such lines. I urged that the Gillard Labor government still had time to get this right, by announcing there will be a full and prompt independent investigation of why the boat was not detected and intercepted safely like the others. I said I wanted to tell him that I would be publicly making these arguments the next day. He thanked me courteously.  

Thursday was very busy for me: ABC radio and television live interviews early in the morning, and two hours of pre-recorded interviews with all the media channels later in the morning. The Australian invited me to write an opinion piece for the next day’s newspaper.

In all this, I scrupulously held to publicly verifiable facts about technology and border protection administrative procedures. I avoided any discussion of refugee policy issues, and resisted being led into speculation about what might have gone wrong in Border Protection Command’s boat detection and interception chain of information and tasking. I had learned from the SIEV X experience that it is vital to stay on message if one wants one's concerns to be heard; though I was sorely tempted to say more by the charmingly persistent Virginia Trioli on ABC News Breakfast.

The joint media conference of the Prime Minister and the Home Affairs Minister at midday on Thursday locked in a settled Government strategy. It was distressing to see how ministers were already selectively spinning, distorting and omitting salient facts, while not making concrete claims about what had happened that might be rebutted later.   

To summarise, Julia Gillard and Brendan O’Connor indicated  – without saying precisely that this was what had happened – that Australian radar would have had difficulty (e.g. ‘there is a limit to what can be achieved’, and ‘nigh on impossible’) in detecting wooden boats in the heavy  storm weather around Christmas Island on Wednesday. 

The media were left to conclude that this wooden boat had escaped detection through technical inadequacy in the radar, under pressures of bad weather. O’Connor said the boat had not been ‘tracked’, whatever this ambiguous term might mean. The PM stressed the criminal responsibility of the people smuggler who organised the voyage.

My opinion piece in The Australian, and my Crikey piece (anticipated later today), set out my concerns. JORN is a long-distance, not short-range, all-weather radar system. 

Radar target traces are progressively firmed up over the 36 hours or so that SIEV boats are at sea. Wooden boats with metal engines are detectable. It is just harder than with steel boats. Storms do generate interference (‘chatter’) but there are standard technical means for separating out the target signal.

Oddly, neither the Prime Minister nor Mr O’Connor referred at all to the established Border Protection Command system, headed currently by Rear Admiral Tim Barrett.  They presented border protection as a police and Customs agency responsibility. In this way,  attention was kept away from questions on JORN data collection and subsequent ADF processing.

The PM announced a coronial inquest, a police criminal investigation, a parliamentary fact finding committee, and ‘an immediate review carried out by Customs and Border Protection, that will involve [an] initial collection of facts and the initial assessment identifying any immediate action required.'

The last measure is particularly welcome, but why the silence on Border Protection Command?  The suspicion is left that this government is not keen to go into ascertaining what if anything might have gone wrong in the detection and interception system. Customs will examine itself, and Border Protection Command is left invisible.   

The media welcomed the PM’s focus on the criminal responsibility of the people smuggler, with headlines like 'Police closing in on guilty people smuggler'. 

No one noted the fact that all the boats that have arrived safely over the past four years were also presumably organised and sent by people smugglers. No suggestion has been made by authorities that this boat was sabotaged or dangerously overloaded: after all, it reached its destination unaided, despite the stormy weather.  

By Friday, the story was already disappearing from the news cycle. The Prime Minister’s evident human empathy and her announcement of four decisive actions had impressed her listeners. 

Police were hot on the people smuggler trail in Indonesia. Only a few people  were still asking awkward questions: David Marr, David Manne, parliamentarians Sarah Hanson-Young and Rob Oakeshott, Greg Barns’ Inderpendent Lawyers’ Alliance, Pamela Curr and myself – and, of course, the shocked Iraqi community and detaineees on Christmas Island.

The rest of Australian society acquiesced in the spin,  and moved on.  

It is curious and sad that in weeks when our media are celebrating WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, we can accept so easily a government-managed story, whose public accountability obligation stares us in the face. Perhaps because editors know that our complacent society really does not want to go there. It would be different, I think, if the people who had drowned were Australians on a shipwrecked Bass Strait or Sydney Harbour ferry.  

Why is it important for an ethical Australian government to unflinchingly examine the possibility that something might have gone wrong last week in Border Protection Command's data collection and processing and command chain to its intercepting ships? Because if the government does not do so, there is the awful possibility that such a horrible event could happen all over again. Do Australians want this? I really don't think so.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is an author and former ambassador to Cambodia and Poland whose 2004 book A Certain Maritime Incident sparket debates about Australia's moral responsibilities on the high seas.



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Existing comments

How quickly the coalition blamed the government's 'softness' for the launching of the boats.

For a man who was Jesuit-trained, Mr. Abbott does not make an admirable Christian.

Moira Rayner | 20 December 2010  

I agree with this article there are many folk who don't care it so sad that its a me me society

Irena mangone | 20 December 2010  

Tony's expertise on SIEVs, SIEVX specifically, maritime law and government machinations appears to raise once again the unthinkable question - was this tragedy was allowed to happen? We need straight answers.

Vacy Vlazna | 20 December 2010  

One has to be impressed with Tony Kevin's gently probing article. Would he have been so circumspect if the Coalition had been in government at this difficult time?

Claude Rigney | 20 December 2010  

Christmas Island is less than 400km from Indonesia - it's a vital strategic location for Australia. Why isn't there a conventional radar facility (non-JORN) sweeping the seas to the north of the island? The recent tragedy indicates not only our inability to detect and respond to maritime distress situations, but a lack of military preparedness.

Owen Holmwood | 20 December 2010  

Thank you Tony for defining the relevant details re authority and capacity of our so called Border Protection agency.

It does seem incredible that Border Control did not know of the presence of this unfortunate boat when it was sitting on the horizon or was it rather a case of the continuation of Howard's ruling not to approach dodgy boats until so authorised by him?

Could a Labor Government be so crass?

Michelle Sydney | 20 December 2010  

Trading in death and misery should never be tolerated or supported. The Government must make clear that NOBODY will EVER be accepted into Australia if they have tried to arrive by boats.

If Australia closes the dangerous and deadly path into our country, then the people smuggling rings will be out of business. The Government cannot make any exception and must stick to its policies.

The gangs are very clever and are now using woman and children to promote sympathy in a similar way woman and children were used as human shields during recent wars. Australia should never ever give in to emotional blackmail to satisfy the greed of people smugglers.

The soft policies of the current Government are directly responsible for the recent accident at Christmas Island. The current Government policies of appeasement will lead to more death. It is not a matter of “if” just “when and where”.

Some people still fail to see that a hard line on people smuggling is actually a far more human and Christian way then to encourage the travel by unsafe boats.

Beat Odermatt | 20 December 2010  

There will be a thousand reasons why the Christmas Island tragedy took place. Tony 'stop the boats' Abbott has launched the first of the many onslaught, the Labor government is to blame.

Followed, naturally, by the Goebbels-like propagandist Andrew Bolt (Herald-Sun 16/12/10) demand that Gillard should resign on moral grounds.

Now we have Tony Kevin's less shrilled version that suggests that the tragedy could have been avoided if only our border control mechanism had been more alert.

This may well be the case. But the reality is that none of the speculations had anything to do with Australians' attitude towards asylum seekers as such. Simply put, most Australians don't want to accommodate refugees or asylum seekers, particularly since all of them are dark-skinned.

Our Christian values and compassions do not run to the extremes of human tragedies. After all, didn't Howard say that we'd decide who can come to Australia?

As the faux snow flakes come tumbling down our metaphorical chimneys, as we wish one another good wishes to all, let us ponder that the Christmas Island tragedy had nothing to do with differences of policies nor has it anything do with the mechanics of border security. It has to do with the lack of our (collective) Christian charity.

Alex Njoo | 20 December 2010  

Tony Kevin has responded insightfully to the stench of spin that quickly clouded this tragedy.

The rabid media coverage, intent on the pursuit of the particular people smugglers, is not proportional to the importance that has thus far been placed on review of our internal processes of detection, assessment and response.

We should be looking at things closer to home. We must never let bureaucratic dysfunction make us standby and watch such horror unfold again.

Bob GROVES | 20 December 2010  

It is not clear what Tony Kevin's point exactly is.

Maybe something did go wrong with Border Protection Command's operations. Every human system is fallible, every technology is subject to failure. It is only a matter of time.

Whenever these boat-people fatalities occur it always seems to be the case that some one or some agency in Australia is held up for blame.

Mr Kevin raises the 'the awful possibility that such a horrible event could happen all over again'. Of course, it will happen again for as long as responsibility is not sheeted home along the whole spectrum of the chain of causation.

It will happen again for as long as people smugglers are allowed to conduct their lethal business affairs unmolested by the Indonesian Government and corrupt local officials. Indonesia has delayed yet again the passage of legislation criminalising people smuggling. One has to ask why.

It will happen for as long as Indonesian neglects to inform Australia that another boat is on its way and which port it has departed from.

It will happen again for as long as self-styled refugees place themselves and their families on rickety unseaworthy boats for a voyage across 400 kilometres of unpredictable ocean without safety rafts and life jackets.

It will happen for as long self-styled refugees 'self-select' their destination country of refuge. I say 'self-styled' because a refugee ceases to be in danger when he/she arrives in the first country of safety. All of the people who arrive in Austraian waters by boat have already passed through four or five countries where they would not be subject to violence and oppression. Well before they reach Indonesia they have ceased to be 'desperate'.

It will happen again for as long as the Gillard Government, for ideological and political reasons, refuses to take control of Australia's borders. When the Pacific solution was in place, no one died at sea attempting to cross from Indonesia to Australia.

The critical issue here is the value of a human life.

Sylvester | 20 December 2010  

Well said Tony. Let us all resolve not to let the questions fade.

If the boat had held 100 Al-Qaeda operatives, would it have been intercepted?

Jim Jones | 20 December 2010  

In the following article there are fairly different opinions about the capability of JORN - .

Radar should spot small craft JOSEPH CATANZARO, West Australian
December 17, 2010,

An engineer involved in developing the radar system which monitors Australia's northern waters has cast doubt on the Government's claim it would have been "nigh on impossible" to detect the asylum boat.

The telecommunications engineer, who was involved on the periphery of the radar's development and cannot be named, said it was an advanced piece of equipment.

He would be "surprised if something that size (the boat) would not be detectable".

[stuff omitted]

The engineer said even in bad weather JORN should be more than capable of detecting the boat.

Another radar expert, Professor Dennis Longstaff from the University of Queensland, disagreed with the engineer's assessment.

"It's a small boat, it was travelling fairly slowly and it's the shift from the movement of ships that allows the signal from the ship to be separated from the signal of the water," he said.

"I think Jindalee would have had difficulty seeing that small boat, especially in heavy seas because heavy seas give a lot of radar backscatter as well."

Tony Brisbane | 20 December 2010  

There are sophisticated detection systems in place on Cocos and Christmas Island, but that isn't the point, is it? Would Jesus have said 'suffer the asylum-seekers to get back on their rickety boats to where they came from'? As I recall he never, once, rejected anyone. Shame on those who would be harsh to one individual to 'make a point' to someone who had already exploited their desperation. What is the evidence that the regime the coalition wants to resurrect permanently deterred any one asylum-seeker? It merely lowered supply and raised the price.

Moira Rayner | 20 December 2010  

Alex Njoo, Andrew Bolt has long been writing that people were dying at sea and would continue to die, as long as the asylum seekers thought there was a good chance they could gain quicker access to Australia via boat. Moira Rayner, you can check out a graph that was supplied on Bolt's blog site. There was an astronomical rise in the number of people in detention once Rudd repealed Howard's laws. The fact that it was the softer laws that drew people here is backed up by inerviews people smugglers gave SBS. Regardless of how many asylum seekers we accept, I suspect that we will never stop some taking the risk of coming in boats. You need no papers and you do not have to necessarily wait for the many years that others have had to wait. Compassion does not mean we have to be soft-headed. I agree with Beat Odermatt. Never accept anyone who comes by boat. This appears to me to be the only way to cut off this evil trade. Having said that, more must be done to process those seeking asylum more quickly where they are, and then to bring them over safely.

patrick james | 20 December 2010  

Moira Rainer - Jesus, who was a common-sense sort of chap, would have advised 'asylum seekers' to be satisfied with the first country in which they found safety and not to put their families on to rickety boats in the first place. In response to Ms Rainer's faulty recollection as to whether Jesus ever rejected anybody, which is immaterial to the Christmas Island tradgey, yes, Jesus rejects those who reject him. At the end of the magnificent parable of the wise and foolish virgins (a very Advent story), recorded in Matthew's gospel, the Bridegroom says to the foolish virgins through the locked door, despite their hammering, 'I do not know you'. To get back to the issue at hand, asylum seekers setting out for Australia from safe places like Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia are not 'desperate'. The Pacific solution deterred people from making the perilous crossing from Indonesia to Australia. It saved lives - that is the point.

Sylvester | 21 December 2010  

Great piece by Tony Kevin, as always.

colin penter | 21 December 2010  

Sylvester, I look at what Jesus did and seek to imitate him, rather than presume to speak as though I were him. Christmas is a time of vulnerability and love. God bless us, every one.

Moira Rayner | 21 December 2010  

The whole debate in Australia over reasons for Afghans (mostly Hazzara), Iraqis, Tamils from Lanka etc seeking entry forgets one factor among the several reasons motivating migrations, sometimes along dicey routes. For over 40 years there has been a combined push-pull factor, namely, snowball chain migration where those ho have found a place in some Western country support the migration of relatives and friends to that country (or any Western haven). These chains often rely on legal paths, but in some instances illegal routes by air (forged papers) and by boat are utilised. Such processes will NEVER be arrested by Pacific solutions or border protection, outsourced or other wise. Aussies are pissing into the wind. I speak as a Sri Lankan. As for generalizations about rickety wooden boats, see my criticism of Australian assumptions in “From leaky wooden boats to the imbecile Asian” in

Michael Roberts | 22 December 2010  

We all know that the SEIVX was a complete cover up and we know that the senate shut it down as soon as it was discovered that the planes tasked to find the boat they pretended to know nothing about noted that they had flown over the sinking boat. REcords released later showed that the rescue boat had been whited out and that the plane was missing for over 2 hours at the precise time of the rescue by the boats whited out. In this wreck the entire world saw the accident in real life with real people screaming and dying. And of course the so-called people smuggler does not exist because giving refugees a ride is simply not people smuggling under any real law in the world.

Marilyn Shepherd | 26 December 2010  

Gotta love the logic of the likes of Bolt and his toadies don't you? They don't give a toss about those slaughtered in wars they love, but they pretend to claim that a few people who drown in an accident on the way to Australia should have been deterred and forced to stay home and wait for the mythical queue. What is not understood by those cowards is that to seek asylum in Australia people have to get here.

Marilyn Shepherd | 26 December 2010  

"How quickly the coalition blamed the government's 'softness' for the launching of the boats" - and so they should. The Government policy encourages the arrival of more and more boats; they are not innocent in this tradgedy. Indonesia officials liken present policy to sprinkling sugar to attract ants.The disater was foreseeable, predictable and preventable.More asylum seekers will put their lives at risk until the government changes its policy. Who knows how many other people have drowned at sea encouraged to risk their lives by government policy?

Len | 26 December 2010  

It is ironic that our amnesia for the plight of the drowned boatpeople should have been generated by the silly season (Christmas) when all humans of goodwill are supposed to stand up and be counted. Although it is not nice to be reminded that we are all complicit in this conspiracy of silence over this tragedy, it is wonderful to think that Tony is there to keep the watch. Things will change, eventually. Only, it will require continuous enormous efforts by people like Tony Kevin to grapple with the tragic news and make us take conscience, before we can accept our responsibility. We can do better, and will not suffer if we are more compassionate. On the contraty, we will at last feel good about living closer to our ideals.

Eveline Goy | 27 December 2010  

Following this story over the last few weeks, I have got the distinct impression that I have somehow slipped into a parallel universe.

Here we have a number of desperate refugees paying large sums of money to criminal gangs to enable them to subvert Australian immigration law. They are doing so to gain an advantage over others who, by choice or necessity, are going through the legal processes and who are in just as desperate situations as themselves. Suddenly, when everything goes tragically wrong, it is all the fault of our Government and we have people like Tony Kevin looking around desperately trying to find ways to lay the blame at our feet.

It goes without saying that we should and can and do take every action within our power to preserve the lives of all who enter out territorial waters, from teenage adventurers to criminal people smugglers. But to try to shift the moral responsibility for such tragedies on to our surveillance agencies, particularly where we are dealing with people who are doing their best to avoid detection, is beyond any reasonable standards of logic.

John Walker | 02 February 2011  

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