Tony Kevin: a new look at the boat people policy challenge

Michael Pezzullo, then Customs boss, and former diplomat turned commentator Tony Kevin were harsh critics of each other over SIEV tragedies and the Operation Sovereign Borders alternative. Then Tony Kevin saw deaths at sea had stopped. He argues turn-back was successful and the camps must go.

When I wrote and published Reluctant Rescuers in April 2012, literally hundreds of asylum-seeking boat people were regularly drowning in waters adjacent to Australia, as a result of second-class and often way too late search-and-rescue procedures by Australian Border Protection Command and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Terrible things kept happening to our fellow human beings on Australia’s maritime border watch over a period of five years 2009-2013. The system was not learning from past tragedies: on the contrary, values and procedures were becoming entrenched and justified that were making similar future tragedies more likely.

The system was in denial as to its responsibility for these hundreds of deaths. It was looking for scapegoats everywhere but at its own doors: in reckless people smugglers and their paying passengers, in the ineffectual Indonesian maritime search and rescue organisation, in Indonesian police and defence agencies, even in Australian refugee advocacy.

In my judgement, the basic reason for all the deaths was systemic and cultural. Australian agencies had the technology to find and track unseaworthy boats trying to reach Christmas Island from nearby Java. But our national rescue responses were, all too often, too little and too late. As a result, hundreds of people drowned on Kevin Rudd’s and Julia Gillard’s watches, in repeated avoidable tragedies.

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  • Marilyn Shepherd

    So again you are applauding criminal behaviour because it means we no longer have to break other laws. Seriously? And how do you know people are not being drowned? This article literally makes me want to vomit.

  • tony kevin

    I hope The Mandarin’s correspondence columns can do better than this one prejudiced rant from a well known keyboard warrior? I wrote a serious policy proposal and would welcome serious comments on it.

  • Pamela Curr

    Tony Kevin has nailed Labor failure which resulted in so many deaths. We all knew that “RESCUE SLOWLY AS A LAST RESORT” was the unspoken mantra. This is a shocking legacy.
    The current cruelty is Liberal building on top of Labors harsh policy. No one is denying the rapes and sexual abuse of women and children in the offshore camps. It causes not a ripple in Government circles.
    As for the EXPERT PANEL legacy of 31,000 people frozen in the community- most still without work rights in spite of Morrison promises to cross bench senators- another Pandoras box opened by Labor.
    Neither Government or Opposition or previous Government emerge from this horrendous history of cruelty with any integrity.
    I think a ROYAL COMMISSION of broad reaching investigation is necessary to undo the damage of nearly 30 years.
    Labor made promises last time- remember the Ministerial Statement by Senator Evans- a decent man who got no support from the Cabinet and who walked away before he had too much blood on his hands.
    I think the time for deals and promises is over.
    As for stopping the boats, we need to look at the Italian Operation Mare Nostrum but of more importance is providing Resettlement from Indonesia. Time for Australia to grow up and stop this infantile nonsense that we can pick and choose refugees based on their location and our political convenience. In a world awash with people on the run, time for Australia to muscle up and reach out a helping hand. We bring in 200,000 backpackers on 417 visas to work and play every year plus an unknown number of 457 visa folk to work – it is time we extended this to those who really need a safe haven.

  • Andrea Callaghan

    Kevin, Your argument is well put. But we have no idea how many have died at sea since OSB came about. My guess is there are plenty still dying at sea – we just don t know about them. And what of those stuck for years in the detention centres in Indonesia. Or languishing in Indonesia with no way home or no way out of there. Their torment is also part of the mess Australia has made. Further – there is NO MORAL ARGUMENT for going along with the whole premise of OSB. We are not being swamped by asylum seekers. Per capita the numbers are very low. We are not doing any “heavy lifting” in a world with now 55 million people seeking refuge. Asylum seekers do nothing wrong in coming here by boat, with or without papers. And there is no other ways for them to seek asylum. And of course, historically – 90% are found to be genuinely fleeing for their lives. Their desperation is evident by their risky boat trip here. You know all this – so why are you supportive of any of these appalling, disgusting and morally repugnant illegal acts by the current Government and the previous one. That the ALP gave the go slow signal to search and rescue efforts, leading to hundreds of deaths at sea is the issue. Contrast it with the effort to save one Caucasian sailor lost at sea. You know better than I of the horror of those who died and those who survived the sinkings. Adrift at sea with dead bodies all around them. I have heard of the navy ships being present for 8 hours whilst people drown around a survivor who lived to tell the tale. All this could be avoided with more humane policies. Why side with the rank, divisive, racists policies that got us where we are. The means are a part of the end. Always. And coming to the more personal stuff – I fear your ego is getting in the way here. Notice how many of your sentences start with I. And when referring to a co-authored book you say I and then her name. Do you self reflect? I ve seen your comments on threads before. The activists and advocates who visit those in onshore detention attest to the horror of those places also. We must aim for the principled and the moral way to treat people at all times. Not bow to pragmatism in politics when in refugee policy it is all based on racism. Imagine if the refugees coming by boat were white skinned Christians. We would not treat them this way! It is all about blatant racism and the efforts to dehumanise them has been successful.