A government lost in a sea of cynicism

It was 16 years ago but the memory of the Australian navy and air force charging to the rescue of lost sailors in a yacht race still resonates as a clear statement of Australia’s commitment to the law of the sea.

Then - when it was revealed that it had cost taxpayers a staggering $16 million to rescue three sailors in this race – there were the declarations from Government and the defence forces that there would never be any consideration of cost in matters of life and death.

It was a sentiment re-iterated five years ago by the then Australian Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, who spoke strongly about the country’s international obligation to undertake search-and-rescue operations on the high seas.

His words came after the navy frigate HMAS Arunta, and its 100-person crew, was sent deep into the Southern Ocean to find another racing yachtsman. “We will continue to do so,” he said proudly, and unequivocally.

Fast forward to June, 2013 and the decision by the Government authorities to leave dead bodies floating in the sea in Australian waters off Christmas Island after another asylum-seeker boat tragedy.

A day or so earlier, according to media reports, the authorities had taken several hours to react to the initial sighting of this boatload of asylum-seekers, about 60 nautical miles from Christmas Island. Apparently they were still alive at the time.

In the space of the next few hours it appears the boat disappeared and many people drowned. Immigration and customs officials say the bodies would probably not be retrieved because there were not enough resources to do this while searching for possible live victims from the sinking of the boat.

Clearly circumstances are different in every sea rescue. However, a principle was re-stated with such clarity by the former defence minister in 2008 that you would believe that this Government would never approve of five-hour delays on search-and-rescue missions or allow dead bodies to float away, knowing the trauma this would cause to relatives and others.

This apparent difference in Government reaction to rescue and recovery on the high seas prompts many deeper questions about the issue of asylum seekers. These were unambiguously stated by the ABC’s Fran Kelly on Radio National Breakfast this week during an interview with Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor.

“If this was a ferry with Australians on board that had capsized, there’s no way those bodies would just be left, there’s no way a Government Minister would not take some action there,” Kelly said.

Of course, despite the Minister’s protestations, we all know that Kelly is right. The bodies of Australians would be recovered come hell or high water.

The fact that the Government feels it is okay to allow these bodies to drift away is at the heart of this issue. Two weeks earlier 28 life jackets were found washed up on a beach at the Cocos Islands, off Western Australia’s north-west coast, a known destination for asylum seekers. There was no attempt at a search, or intensive investigation. Just a statement from the Australian Federal Police stating it was common for debris to be washed up there.

Again, the question hangs in the air. Would the same standard apply if these jackets were washed up on a beach in an area frequented by Australians in boats rather than asylum seekers? And even if there was an initial lack of information, as in this case, would the police put it in to the too-hard basket so quickly? Or, more importantly, would they be allowed to do so?

Again we all know the answer, because, through its actions, not its words, we have come to know that the Australian Government believes that the lives of asylum-seekers are more expendable than others.

The Australian Government has a name for people who come by boat. They are IMA’s (Irregular Maritime Arrivals). It is all part of the bureaucratic terminology that allows politicians to define these people as anything but human.

This Government, and its Coalition echo on refugee policy, has one abiding fear. It’s that Australian people will discover asylum-seekers are human beings. Next thing we will be demanding that they be treated like human beings.

Better to leave their bodies float off like animals to be swallowed by the sea.


Trevor Grant is a former chief cricket writer at The Age, and now works with the Boycott Sri Lanka Cricket Campaign and the Refugee Action Collective.


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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