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Personal reflections on the Christmas Island tragedy

  • 20 December 2010

For 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