Monday, September 29, 2008


SIEV-X questions sink leadership credentials

Michael Mullins,

September 15, 2008

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.

LINK:Social Policy Connections.