The coronial inquest into the deaths of five Afghan asylum seekers killed in a boat explosion last April begins today in the Northern Territory. It will be interesting to see if the inquiry brings any more details to light, as the level of information available to date has been quite sketchy at best.

One positive aspect is that the inquest will hear from some of the refugees who were on the boat. A negative aspect is the news that the “Australian Navy has been allowed to keep some evidence confidential”, most critically in the area of “how the Navy uses force”.

Both of those aspects bring to my mind another controversial refugee boat — the so-called “children overboard” boat that played such a pivotal role in the 2001 election campaign — and the major Senate Committee inquiry into the incident that was held the following year.

I was a member of that Senate Committee — which officially went by the quaint title of the “Select Committee for an inquiry into a certain maritime incident.” It was chaired by the late Peter Cook, with John Faulkner playing the key role for Labor. The Queensland pair of George Brandis and Brett Mason played the lead roles for the Liberals.

Despite the committee’s title, it inquired into a lot more than just that one incident. It also examined the details of how the so-called “Pacific Solution” operated. The committee’s terms of reference included a requirement to examine “operational procedures observed by the Royal Australian Navy and by relevant Commonwealth agencies to ensure the safety of asylum seekers on vessels entering or attempting to enter Australian waters”.

This was the first opportunity to properly and publicly examine the detail of Operation Relex — which was the system hurriedly put in place by the Howard government just before the 2001 election to intercept asylum seekers vessels and attempt to deny them entry to Australia, including by boarding the vessels and forcing them back to Indonesia if possible.

This included an examination of the tragedy of the boat known as the SIEV X, where 353 people, including 146 children, lost their lives.  This ended up becoming quite lengthy as inconsistencies in some of the initial evidence appeared and the government’s determination increased to prevent the release of information or the appearance of ministerial staff before the inquiry.

The evidence provided by Navy and other Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel to the Senate inquiry was extensive and, in almost all areas, comprehensive. The inquiry held 15 days of public hearings, all of them in Canberra and most of them featuring ADF people at one time or another, sometimes for very long periods. The ADF’s willingness to co-operate stood in stark contrast to the then-government.

It is true that there are valid operational reasons why things such as surveillance techniques or intelligence and other co-operation with Indonesia authorities would need to be kept secret.  But it is harder to see why there should be a gag put on evidence about how the Navy uses force.

The way ADF personnel treated asylum seekers during the interception of their boats was an important part of the Senate’s Certain Maritime Incident inquiry, especially as it often involved how military people would deal with desperate, scared and traumatised refugees, including attempting to get them to agree to do something they didn’t want to do — such as turn their boats around or have their boat boarded, in some cases even using SAS forces to take control of a vessel.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that these ADF personnel are simply doing their job — in this case one with some potentially very unpleasant or confronting requirements — as directed by the government of the day. But allegations of excessive or inappropriate use of force are still serious and should be examined, not covered up.

While there has been limited detail available about what might have happened regarding the refugee boat (labelled SIEV 36), which exploded in April last year, an allegation was  published in The Australian in September last year that Navy personnel used force to fend off refugees from trying to board their rescue vessel.  This allegation was reported by Hassan Ghulam, a Brisbane-based Afghan advocate who had spoken with some of the refugees who survived the blast.

Such an allegation from the refugees might sound implausible given the context, although in the panic and confusion of such a situation — especially given the likelihood that most of the refugees wouldn’t be able to swim — it could be quite possible that some may have perceived this to be happening.

But the article doesn’t just rely on second-hand comments from some of the refugees.  It also cites “sources who have seen the Navy video footage of the tragedy” who say Afghans were repelled from the rescue boats in scenes described as “distressing” and “inhumane”.

It is important that allegations such as this are properly and publicly examined. I expect Navy officials would prefer it was cleared up too. Any attempt to use “operational reasons” to prevent examination of the use of force is concerning.  Information about the procedures used when Navy personnel initially took control of the SIEV 36, as well as actions leading up to when the explosion happened, would be very relevant to building a picture of any tensions on board at the time.

This highlights another key difference between the Senate’s children-overboard inquiry and the Coroner’s inquiry into the boat explosion, which is that this time some refugees will be giving evidence themselves.  Back in 2002, it struck me as unsatisfactory that none of the refugees on the children overboard boat — who had been publicly vilified by the Prime Minister and other senior ministers — got to tell their story about what happened.  Despite the whole children overboard allegation having been well and truly shown to be false, none of them have ever received an apology.

Of course, at that time, all of the refugees only had temporary visas, which made them very vulnerable and gave them good reason to be fearful of the government — hardly a good situation in which to give evidence to a Senate Committee, which some people find a bit daunting at the best of times.

By contrast, (due to one of the Rudd government’s best reforms in this area), the refugees giving evidence to the Coroner’s inquiry will be on permanent visas. They may also be wishing to clear their names, or those of their deceased compatriots, who have on occasion been accused of deliberating creating the explosion on the boat.

It may be difficult to ever fully establish what happened on board the SIEV 36. If a gag is put on any of the relevant evidence, it will be made that much harder.

Peter Fray

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