On Radio National Breakfast, 25 June 2012, Reluctant Rescuers: New book on asylum seeker policy. From http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/reluctant-rescuers-new-book-on-asylum-seeker-policy/4089714.

Fran Kelly (FK): With the search and rescue operation over, police have now began an investigation into last week’s asylum seeker boat disaster. Rescuers have pulled 110 survivors from the water, authorities believe 90 people are still missing, presumed drowned.

Yesterday, opposition leader Tony Abbott, refused to do any deal with the Federal Government on stopping the boats, saying it’s up to the Greens to break the political stalemate on offshore processing. Tony Kevin is a former diplomat turned author. He’s spent many years now researching our maritime protection system, and he says there is an entrenched ambiguity or moral confusion in the system’s chain of command.

Tony Kevin is the author of ‘A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of SIEV X’ and this week he publishes a new book — it’s called ‘Reluctant Rescuers’. He joins us in our Canberra studios. Tony Kevin, welcome to breakfast.

Tony Kevin (TK): Good Morning Fran.

FK: Tony, you’ve looked back at a number of incidents like this one where sometimes, as in the case of SIEV X all those years ago, hundreds of lives have been lost in a single sinking. From what you know, how similar are the circumstances of this latest incident to those of the past decade and a half?

TK: The essential systemic similarity is that our border protection command, which is set up to manage Australia’s maritime security in our northern waters, explicitly takes no responsibility for the safety of life at sea of the people travelling on the boats that it’s trying to detect and intercept. This means that there is a contradiction, a moral sickness if you like, running through the whole system that really says these boats don’t exist in our intelligence-based detection and interception system until they’re here. Before that, they’re just theoretical possibilities, and we don’t have to take responsibility for them.

FK: And how have you come to this conclusion, this conclusion that within our system there is this seeming disinterest, or lack of responsibility for safety of lives at sea until they’re right in the very heart of our waters?

TK: Well, Fran, back in 2002 when I studied the tragedy of SIEV X, I was really only guessing. The evidence that was being put forward in the Senate Select Committee, under great pressure from senators like John Faulkner and Jacinta Collins, was shadowy and unclear. What’s happened now, particularly after the disaster at Christmas Island in 2010, a great deal of published evidence was presented in the Coroner’s inquiry in particular, and also to the Parliamentary committee, which now really reveals the system, the intelligence-based system that we use to detect and intercept boats, and some very damning admissions have been made by people like the head of Border Protection Command, and the senior Customs Executive to whom he reports, that really, I’ll just read out what the Coroner said:

“I accept the observation made by Rear Admiral Barrett to the effect that, from the point of view of Border Protection Command, from a border security perspective, the arrival of a Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel at Christmas Island, without being intercepted, would not be a matter of great concern. I also accept that Border Protection Command does not have any special responsibility to saving Suspected Irregular Entry Vessels that might place themselves in dangerous situations.”

FK: So, what you’re saying is that illustrates this, what you call it, moral ambiguity or I also think you describe it as a callousness towards life, and carelessness.

TK: Yes indeed, and it’s ironical that Senator Faulkner’s report back in 2002 explicitly recommended that Australia’s authorities put safety of life at sea at the centre of their processes of border security. That recommendation has been ignored, and we now have the paradox of people like Senator Brandis, who was defending the Howard Government at that time, now performing a very positive role in the recent Senate Estimates investigation of a boat that went missing in 2009. Senator Brandis is now uncovering that we still have a profound indifference, as a border protection system, to human life at sea.

FK: Yeah, again to quote from that inquiry, the SIEV 221 inquiry into that sinking of that boat off Christmas Island in 2010, Rear Admiral Tim Barrett from Border Patrol Command was asked, “Did BPC, Border Patrol, consider it had any responsibility to anticipate the arrival of an asylum seeker boat at Christmas Island in bad weather, and be ready to assist if it got into a danger”, and Rear Admiral Barrett replied, he knew of no agency that had such responsibility. Now that’s the problem, in your view, right there and then, that no one in all our system of Customs, surveillance, Border Protection sees it as their role to be ready to assist in case these boats get in danger, no matter where they are?

TK: Exactly, and we see it in the case of last week’s tragedy as well. The faxes from the Maritime Security Authority to BASARNAS which have been revealed by the ABC, a wonderful public service they’ve done in doing this, do show that for two days, we were simply, mechanically sending off messages based on our own intelligence or signals from the boat to the Maritime Safety Authority that the boat was in trouble, we simply shunted them off to BASARNAS, the Indonesian maritime safety authority, in full knowledge that BASARNAS would probably respond to them ineffectively and inefficiently, and we only took responsibility for the safety of life at sea emergency that we’d known about for two days when we actually saw, by Australian aircraft flying overhead, that the boat had overturned and people were drowning in the water. It was only then that the Australian border protection system and the maritime safety authority, working in harmony, unleashed the full Australian safety of life at sea response.

FK: So in your view, when should it have release that response, because according to AMSA’s version of events, the Maritime Safety Authority’s version of events, those messages you talked about there that they sent immediately to the Indonesian authorities, once they received those calls from people in distress, were sent to the Indonesians because the boat was still only, as I understand it, only 38 nautical miles off the Indonesian coastline. So, in theory, much more effective and efficient for the Indonesians to go to the assistance of that boat?

TK: No, the answer to that question, Fran, is very clear. The boat was heading from Indonesia to Australia, it had already left Indonesian territorial waters — it was in international waters. The Indonesian authorities basically don’t care about boats leaving their country — they’re rather pleased they’re going. On the other hand, we care a lot, from a national security perspective, about boats heading towards our country. Now, we have the intelligence that boats are coming, we have the technical resources to save them, and the minute we got a distress signal from that boat, 38 nautical miles away from Indonesia, in international waters, we should have responded with a safety of life at sea response. Instead, in a bizarre and cruel way, our Maritime Safety Authority basically said “go back to where you came from”. Our Maritime Safety Authority sent a message to the Indonesians saying please rescue this boat — it’s leaving your country, it’s in international waters but it’s heading our way, we don’t want it, you look after it.

FK: As you say after the SIEV X investigation, the emphasis within these organisations was meant to be putting safety of life at sea first. Do you think this latest incident might prove to be some kind of tipping point, because there’s a clamour now from MPs on all sides of politics for a bipartisan solution to the problem?

TK: I really urge MPs from all parties to read my book conscientiously. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and at the moment, a lot of people, good people like Oakeshott and Windsor, are falling into the trap of saying this means we’ve got to have offshore processing. Actually it doesn’t. It means we’ve got to put humanity back into our border protection system.

FK: But is offshore processing a better way to do that, to stop people making these voyages?

TK: No, the right way to do it is to have a proper regional system of cooperation to handle asylum seeker processing. To just shunt the problem offshore is a morally irresponsible position.

FK: Tony Kevin, thank’s very much for joining us.

TK: It’s a pleasure.

FK: Tony Kevin is a former diplomat and an author, and his new book is called ‘Reluctant Rescuers’. It’s available from his website, http://reluctantrescuers.com

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