In the dark reflection of the one-year anniversary of the shipwreck of SIEV 221 — the Christmas Island boat tragedy — it’s time to ask ourselves and each other: what have we learnt? Not only because this was Australia’s deadliest shipwreck since 1890, as David Marr’s descriptive piece points out — 41 rescued, as many as 50 dead, including eight children and infants, and 20 or so whose bodies have never been recovered.

It’s time we used this anniversary to begin directly posing some of the most difficult and troubling questions about this event. You may want answers, I offer only questions. These questions are difficult for several reasons. Difficult due to their weight, in that they bear on us as Australians, and our identity. Difficult for their call to us, in that they implicate us in light of our embrace of border security as a political choice. And difficult to talk about in that, to a large extent, we have not even begun to formulate them.

In fact, what’s striking about SIEV 221 is that it seems to have left no mark on the national imagination. We are not dealing with repression and guilt; there is no trauma.

What have we learnt? In order to begin responding to this question, it’s worth considering how, thus far, SIEV 221 has been identified, recognised and assessed by those whose job it is to perform border security on our behalf.

SIEV 221 provoked swift reflection by Customs and Border Security; by late December, they had produced this internal report. In March of this year, a standing committee was formed; its report, published June 29, is available here. Brendan O’Connor, as the representative of the government, has responded to its findings here. The WA coroner, Alistair Hope, is expected to deliver his findings in the new year — Marr’s article discusses many of the significant details, and adds a narrative (if you are unsure about the details, please consider reading it carefully first).

Having read all of them, what I find striking about their findings and recommendations, first and foremost, is a preference for technology.

All the reports dwell on technical and technological failings: communications breakdowns, engine breakdowns, insufficient radar. This has meant that the recommendations are, likewise, overwhelmingly technical in nature. They say: “we need better radar”. And perhaps rocket-propelled life jackets. And jet skis. Granted there were several technical and technological failings, detailed in the reports linked above. And nobody in Border Protection Command (BPC) saw SIEV 221 coming.

It was, in the government’s language, “un-alerted and un-attributed”; what, Marr’s report tells us, Christmas Islanders call a “sneaker”.

I want to leave aside an assessment of the details, and, with learning in mind, ask the following: what do we want when we want technology? As I see it, to the extent that we understand our problems as technological, then so too are the solutions. Their application is a technical matter.

Peter Fray

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