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Book Review: Kevin's 'A Certain Maritime Incident: the Sinking of SIEV X'

By Gavin Mooney - posted Tuesday, 28 September 2004

To read Tony Kevin's book during this election campaign, a campaign which was kick started by John Howard's appeal to the voters on trust, raises a number of questions. Can we trust this government? Can we trust the government to have given the Senate Inquiry into SIEV X all the cooperation it needed to do a good job? In the wake of this murky affair, should we feel that our former levels of trust in our democratic institutions are in any sense dented? Can we trust Tony Kevin to have relayed honestly and frankly his investigation into the sinking of SIEV X? All but the last of these I would answer in the negative.

SIEV X was the - now infamous - boat that set sail from Indonesia in October 2001 heading for Australia. The boat held 421 people seeking asylum in a better country and with a will to build a new life in Australia. The grossly overloaded 19 metre boat sailed for 33 hours and about 60 nautical miles into the Indian Ocean. It then sank in international waters with the loss of 353 lives. The sinking occurred well within the area of the military-protection and surveillance zone which was then being patrolled intensively by Australia's Operation Relex.

This is a deeply worrying book. It is a story of enormous human tragedy which needs to be recognised as such, independently of any assessment of blame. For the memory of the victims and their families and for those 45 who survived, this book had to be written. It is a book, however, which had to be written for yet wider reasons. It is also for all Australians who seek to be able to believe in the integrity of our democratic institutions and of our public service.


From start to finish, this book is about government obfuscation and seeming cover up. While the nature of the evidence presented by Kevin has to be subject to words like "obfuscation" rather than "lying" and "seeming" rather than "proven", what is absolutely clear is the effort by government - our government - the public service and the defence forces - again ours - to hide various aspects of the truth or at least to try to prevent them coming out.

Whether the Australian government was culpable or in any sense responsible for the SIEV X deaths, we may never know for sure. What is very clear not only from Kevin's book but more generally from the recent history of the Australian government's handling of asylum seekers, for example locking them up in detention centres in high security imprisonment environments, is the callous indifference of our government to such people. The book also has to be seen against a background of what now looks like lying by that same government with respect to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and yet more recently of the Mike Scrafton revelations about the children overboard affair and of the calls for greater integrity in government by "the 43".

Apart from Kevin himself, perhaps Margo Kingston, the Canberra Times, maybe Senators Bartlett, Collins, Cook and Faulkner from the Senate Inquiry, there are few heroes in this book and then mostly anonymous. It is a tale of sordid sorties into subterfuge for political gain. And, in the end, the government that had turned the Tampa and the last election around, had failed to do more, perhaps even anything, to protect the lives of the 421 on SIEV X, and had falsely accused innocent people of what would have been a dastardly act of throwing their children overboard – did it apologise for any of their neglect or false accusations? No. As with the Stolen Generation, saying sorry in the harsh climate that today passes for Australian politics is seemingly not an option. 

Can we believe Kevin? It is for the reader to judge. I believe him in his careful, painstaking reconstruction of events. It must have been a quite extraordinarily difficult task to bring together this "evidence", much of which by Kevin's own account is not such that it would have stood up in a court of law. Any suggestion however that Kevin is a man obsessed, as the government seems keen to brand him, is clearly false. For example, government senators in the minority report from the Senate stated: "We cannot help but wonder… whether the conspiracy theories so sedulously fostered by other senators [on the Inquiry]… may have nurtured the febrile climate of suspicion in which Mr Kevin's fanciful allegations were able to establish a foothold of credibility." They are not fanciful; it is an enormous foothold.

The style is fascinating. Measured and dispassionate it certainly is. Yet just below the surface, one can detect the seething passion of a man who feels betrayed not for himself, but for the values that he has sought to uphold in Australian public life for 30 years and which he now clearly and justifiably sees as being threatened.

Tony Kevin is a gentle caring man who spent three decades in Australian public service, including time in the Prime Minister's Department and as Australia's ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He does not come across in his book or in person as a man obsessed, but as one who cares about the maintenance of such values as integrity, trust, openness and decency in Australian public life. It is difficult to associate him or his writings with "fanciful allegations". Indeed, I would challenge anyone to read this book and be able to sustain that view. The account is clearly not fanciful. It is painstakingly detailed, eschewing emotion when that sentiment would seem to be uppermost in the reader's mind. It is close to masterful in providing a justification for Kevin's call for a judicial inquiry.


What is very clear is that there were deceit and obfuscation not only on the part of the government, but also on the part of members of the defence forces and, perhaps most damagingly for the social fabric of Australia, on the part of senior public servants. Jane Halton, who headed up the government's People Smuggling Taskforce, gave "evidence" to the Senate Inquiry in such a way that it would give Don Watson materials for most of another book on political speak. Some of this is described by Kevin as having been presented in such way that Halton had "perfected the art of giving testimony that was 'not quite a lie'".

Mick Keelty, the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, was quite extraordinarily honest about his evidence to the inquiry: "I am aware that my inability to answer those questions goes to the very heart of my credibility as a witness as well as that of my organisation in your eyes and potentially those of the public". But he had an excuse. He went on: "on the advice provided to me, I simply cannot go further." And the Senate Inquiry did not have the powers to make him or other witnesses go further or indeed in some instances to appear.

The writer's puzzled indignation at the failure of so many actors on the governance stage not to recognise their own roles in undermining some of the values of Australian public life is there on every page. It is painful for the reader to sense the despondency in Kevin as he comes to acknowledge what for him, a career public servant, must have seemed the unthinkable: that there exists a moral corruption in our system of government and not just in specific individuals. This moral corruption is in turn a source of pain for the reader as an Australian citizen - the recognition of this disease in the body politic.
The awful truth will eventually out and my guess is that a large proportion of Kevin's "fanciful" allegations will be proved correct. There are too many people with guilty consciences to stay quiet for ever. Career public servants will eventually buckle to their consciences and spill the beans.

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About the Author

Gavin Mooney is a health economist and Honorary Professor at the Universities of Sydney and Cape Town. He is also the Co-convenor of the WA Social Justice Network . See

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