Operation Sovereign Borders, sinister and banal [blogjune05]

An Australian bureaucrat reacts to allegations that Operation Sovereign Borders removes safety gear from lifeboats: click to embiggenThis man’s name is Mick Kinley, and he’s shrugging with indifference at allegations that safety equipment is deliberately removed from the lifeboats used to return asylum seekers to Indonesia. But that OK, he’s the acting chief executive officer of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).

I’ve never met Kinley. I know nothing of his work apart from this incident. But do we really need any further context? The bureaucrat in charge of maritime safety is challenged over what sounds like a breach of maritime safety, but, you know, “Whatever.”

I believe this is what’s called the banality of evil.

Hang on, I’d better scroll back a bit…

Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) is the Australian government’s grand-sounding name for the grubby process of intercepting any boats at sea that contain asylum seekers and returning them to Indonesia. They’re put into standard orange lifeboats towed behind our ships, and once they’re within a certain distance of Indonesia they’re cast off and left to find their own way hone.

But as The Guardian’s Paul Farrell reported on 7 May, safety equipment is removed from those lifeboats beforehand — ropes, scissors, knives, a mirror, fishing line and even buckets.

On 27 May, Kinley was questioned about this in the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee by Senator Stephen Conroy, who was clearly unimpressed. You can read the transcript — the relevant exchange starts on page 86 — but you should really watch the video to see the body language for yourself.

Actually, it’s worth picking up the story a little before that video starts, on page 84…

Conroy ask whether the lifeboats need to conform to SOLAS, that is, requirements under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. There then ensues a discussion over whether lifeboats that are not being used as lifeboats are still lifeboats, or independent vessels.

It’s worth reading in full. It reveals that Kinley not only doesn’t know the answers, but that he clearly hasn’t bothered thinking about events in the news that would fall within his organisation’s jurisdiction. His shrug tells me that he really doesn’t seem to care.

In the latter part of the exchange, he active avoids agreeing to Conroy’s request that he go talk to OSB and satisfy himself that safety requirements are being met.

Senator CONROY: In relation to these lifeboat survival craft, do they have to comply with SOLAS?

Mr Kinley: Only if they are being used as a lifesaving appliance as part of the ship’s —

Senator CONROY: What are you categorising them being used for?

Mr Kinley: As part of a certified ship’s equipment.

Senator CONROY: I can show you a YouTube video to show you what they are being used for but what I am asking is whether they have to comply, if they are being deployed, whether they are part of the ship’s actual safety equipment for the ship itself, but if they are deploying this vessel does it have to comply with SOLAS?

Mr Kinley: That is an interesting legal question. I would say no.

Senator CONROY: So they would not require certain materials to be loaded like food, communications equipment and medical supplies? They do not have to have any of those things on board?

Mr Kinley: No. There is a whole list of requirements and the lifesaving appliance code which goes with SOLAS about what a certified lifeboat that is part of a ship’s equipment should have.

Senator CONROY: We are back to that hair split but that is fine. So as far as you are concerned, in charge of safety at sea in this country, these survival craft can be deployed and they do not have to comply with any standards, whatsoever?

Mr Kinley: I would have to take that one on notice because I would have to go back and do some more investigation about what other standards may be out there. Any standards whatsoever is a wide —

Senator CONROY: You may not be aware, but it has been in the media, and these are quotes from an OSB officer familiar with the work that is being done on the orange life boats that operate as part of OSB. This is quotes from an OSB officer involved, ‘In addition to capping the fuel tanks, many materials are removed from the life boats including ropes, scissors, a mirror, fishing line, knives, ropes, a bucket and other emergency tools.’ So, would a lifeboat with these modifications remotely meet SOLAS?

Mr Kinley: As I said, that sounds like part of a list of equipment for a vessel’s lifesaving appliances. That would not be considered a compliant lifeboat in that case.

Senator CONROY: Not be considered a compliant lifeboat. Thank you for a genuinely honest answer there.

CHAIR: Can I just note for the record, Senator Conroy, that you look very comfortable.

Senator CONROY: You can note anything you like. I find it astonishing that in a vessel at sea that someone would remove a bucket, a fairly standard thing for bailing out water that might come on board. I am not an expert in this area; in fact, I am a particularly poor —

Mr Kinley: Again, my experience with totally enclosed lifeboats is that they are actually designed, even if they fill up with water, to not sink.

Senator CONROY: So, people should treat it like an indoor pool?

Mr Kinley: They are normally built with a bilge pump built into them as well. I am not actually sure about what the situation is.

Senator CONROY: I am only going on the reports in the newspapers.

Mr Kinley: There are things I would rather have than a bucket.

Senator CONROY: I am sure there are many other things you would rather have if you were floating about in an indoor pool inside an orange tent at sea, but a whole range of safety equipment had been removed.

There’s a brief discussion with John Young, AMSA’s general manager of emergency response, about the number of OSB incidents on record, before they return to the topic of the lifeboats.

Senator CONROY: Given what I have described to you as the removal of safety equipment from the orange vessels that has been described by an OSB officer, will you be taking this up with OSB to inform them that they are making the survival craft not comply with the international standard?

Mr Kinley: No. Those requirements for lifeboat equipment are relevant for a survival craft that —

Senator CONROY: So, people in a survival —

Senator Johnston: He should be allowed to answer the question!

Mr Kinley: Things like fishing lines, for example, are there because there have been longstanding things, a list of things, which should be in lifeboats. The reasoning was that lifeboats are there as a survival craft. Seafarers could be stuck floating in these things for weeks at a time.

Senator CONROY: That is the definition of the situation these people are in.

Mr Kinley: Well, that is not my understanding of what they are being used for.

Senator CONROY: They are being pointed somewhere and told, ‘Go for it.’ But they are being pointed not within sight of land.

Senator Johnston: That is an operational matter. Do not put that to him. That is just an operational matter that is not relevant here.

Senator CONROY: You are not responsible for this, Senator Johnston. You have made it very clear on many occasions. This is not an operation that you are responsible for. Yes, there are circumstances where they sailed a little close to a piece of land, but we were advised that they are a minimum of 12 kilometres away from land when they are released. I am confused about why it makes a difference to you whether you think because they are told, ‘Go in that direction,’ that is ultimately what happens.

Senator Johnston: You are putting words in his mouth.

Senator CONROY: No, I am trying to understand why he is ruling out circumstances he does not know.

Mr Kinley: I am not going to speculate on operations. I have got nothing to indicate to me that there have been any situations where people have been in these lifeboats for weeks on end. I was purely explaining to you that the equipment which is required under SOLAS to be fitted in a lifeboat is all there on the basis that people or seafarers may have to survive in those lifeboats for weeks at a time and there is a whole list of things which are required to be there.

Senator CONROY: Of which these orange lifeboats are not complying with.

Senator Johnston: Says who?

Mr Kinley: I am not in a position to speculate about the operations which are happening on water there —

Senator CONROY: I am not asking you to, I am asking you to go and get some facts and then advise the— this is testimony in a paper from an officer who says, ‘This is what we have been doing.’ There is no evidence in the public about safety equipment being removed from survival craft. You yourself have said, ‘Not be considered a compliant lifeboat.’ I am asking you can you go and ascertain —

Mr Kinley: Under SOLAS.

Senator CONROY: from OSB now, so that next time I ask you you can give me the same answer you did before yesterday: you went and had a chat and they satisfied you.

Mr Kinley: But these lifeboats are not being used, as far as I am aware, in the context of what lifeboats are certified under SOLAS to do. There is a whole lot of requirements about having hand flares and having a floating bailer. They are actually supposed to have two buckets and a fishing line and all of that stuff. I do not see that it is relevant.

Senator CONROY: Are you aware that one of the boats has reportedly run aground on a reef well short of shore. A bucket could be pretty useful in a circumstance like that. Do we not have to worry about it? It is an Indonesian reef. It is on the public record. One of these orange vessels that you are describing as not compliant, has had its buckets taken out, and it has run aground on a reef and people have had to struggle to get out and make it to shore. They are not making it to shore always.

Senator Johnston: He is not going to speculate about any of this stuff.

Senator CONROY: It is not about speculation, it is just a reported fact.

Senator Johnston: It is just speculation.

Mr Kinley: It is, and I am not sure what good a bucket would do you in that situation.
Senator CONROY: You can lead the international call to take buckets out of these boats. You can put up a rule change, say, ‘Internationally it is absurd. We do not need these buckets on these types of vessels.’

Mr Kinley: In fact, in terms of SOLAS, the buckets are generally there to perform other functions. That is why there are two of them.

Senator CONROY: We are pleased to know that you do not think they are used for bailing anybody out at any stage. That is all the questions I have got.

So there we have it.

Mick Kinley, the man in charge of maritime safety in Australia doesn’t want to check whether Australians are deliberately removing safety equipment from watercraft and, if they’re doing so, whether that breaks the rules — rules that the organisation he heads is specifically tasked with enforcing.

Mick Kinley, allegedly a human being, doesn’t even care that fellow human beings who’ve already been deprived the small dignity of being able to defecate in private — because they’re now crowded with others in a big orange pod — now don’t even have anything to defecate into.

Imagine what that must be like. Men, women and children, not all of them healthy after time at sea on a small boat, surging up and down on the waves — for how long? Sorry, that’s an “on-water matter” and the government won’t say.

Mick Kinley, meanwhile, clocks off at the end of the day and goes home to relax. His salary will pop into his bank account on schedule. Just don’t ask him any questions that might rock his boat. Arsehole.

[This is one of 30 daily posts I’m writing during Blogjune. See them all under the tag blogjune, or subscribe to the RSS feed. Yes, I’m running a bit behind schedule, but there’ll be catch-up posts along the way.]

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2 comments

  1. jane’s avatar

    This is absolutely disgusting! And the RAN is complicit as is Kinley and by association we, the Australian public.

    This government claims they have stopped the boats which is clearly a lie. They claim they have stopped people dying at sea, but how would we know that?

    I admit I would NEVER vote Liars but this goes beyond the pale. It’s not rorting money from the country and lying about it. This is in a diffetent category

  2. Barry’s avatar

    What a disgrace

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