Somewhere between God and Caesar

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According to his Anglican Church website biography, Dr Tom Frame was appointed Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force in June 2001. For two years before that, he was Rector of the Anglican diocese of Bungendore, near Canberra. He took holy orders in 1993. He retired from the Royal Australian Navy at Lieutenant rank in 1992 after a thirteen-year naval career, much of which involved tertiary studies. He worked in military museums and convened the first Australian Naval History Seminar in 1991. He completed a PhD in naval history in 1991.

Frame is a prolific and popular author of over twelve books, mostly in the field of naval and Anglican church history. Perhaps his best-known book is Where Fate Calls: The HMAS Voyager Tragedy (1991), which he describes as the definitive study of the collision of HMAS Voyager with HMAS Melbourne in 1964, with eighty two lives lost. A recent ABC television documentary Unfit to Command (David Salter, 2003), came to quite different conclusions about why Voyager collided with Melbourne.

As a consecrated bishop, a former naval officer, and a military historian, Frame’s career path sits somewhat uneasily between God and Caesar. It is clear from his biodata that the Australian Government, the Navy and the Anglican Church have all been generous to Frame’s career he is a diligent worker and loyal to his colleagues. The topic of his Master of Theology thesis in 1992 was The Delphic Sword: Reconciling Christianity and Military Service in Australia. He returned to that topic more recently, writing two successive articles concerning the morality of the coalition invasion of Iraq, whose titles speak for themselves:

A US-led war in Iraq would be just – but I pray it will not eventuate – 12/2/2003
Forgive me, I was wrong about the justification for invading Iraq – 25/6/2004

(Both essays are accessible on http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/author.asp?id=677 )

In the second article, Frame concedes that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, did not pose a threat to either its nearer neighbours or the United States and its allies, and did not host or give material support to al-Qa’ida or other terrorist groups. He concludes that the invasion of Iraq was not a just war, but ‘just another war’, and he asks God’s forgiveness for his complicity in creating a world in which this sort of action was ever considered by anyone to be necessary: he does not however ask for the forgiveness of the families of the estimated 100 000 Iraqis killed in and since the invasion. Still, he maintains that the Australian Government and ADF definitely believed at the time of the invasion that Iraq possessed WMD and would employ them in support of its national interests. So his retraction of the justice of this war is less than it might seem at first glance.

Frame has a forthcoming book, War & Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press). It is clear from what I have seen of his writings and speeches that he trusts in the moral integrity and regularity of conduct of Australian governments, and is committed to upholding the honour and public reputation of the ADF including the Navy.

It is therefore understandable that Frame would have found my recent book, A Certain Maritime Incident “ the Sinking of SIEV X (Scribe Books, Melbourne, August 2004), deeply unsettling. His views on the book were set out in a review published recently in the Spring 2004 issue of Defender – journal of the Australian Defence Association, and in the September-November 2004 issue of Public Administration Today, journal of the Canberra Branch of the Australian Institute of Public Administration. Between them, these two journals, though not large in circulation, would reach an influential senior military and public service readership.

Frame rejects my book on both professional and ethical grounds. The right of fearless enquiry based on public evidence into any kind of questionable government conduct is effectively challenged by this kind of critique.

On 19 October 2001, in waters where Australian Government border protection authorities at the time had a duty of care to try to protect life, 353 people drowned when an overloaded and unseaworthy asylum-seeker vessel that was trying to reach Australia’s Christmas Island lost engine power and foundered. All of Australia’s naval and air surveillance and interception assets patrolling the area did not detect or go to the aid of this unnamed stricken vessel, which I later named ‘SIEV X’ ‘suspected illegal entry vessel, unknown’.

Frame is suspicious of the evidence and analysis set out in my book. He believes that in this case, we might be confronted with the unknown and burdened with the unknowable. He suggests I should not have excluded more benign and less controversial explanations of what occurred.

He berates me for, as he claims, questioning the integrity of individuals in government and the Australian Defence Force: ‘I do not believe it is proper to speculate when such speculation affects an individual’s professional reputation or their good standing in the community.’ He suggests, as someone personally acquainted with five Navy admirals whose evidence before the Senate enquiry into the sinking of SIEV X is analysed in my book (Admirals Shackleton, Ritchie, Smith, Gates and Bonser), that ‘they have every right to feel aggrieved at the manner in which Kevin has constantly impugned their character and questioned their integrity.’

He thereby opens up a possibility of his review being cited in support of defamation suits against me, a possibility already urged by one indignant correspondent to Defender in the issue after Frame’s review appeared.

Frame’s key judgement is that my book has not provided sufficient documentary or circumstantial evidence to prove its case, nor has it shown why this incident is primarily a matter for the Australian government to investigate without the full and willing co-operation of the Indonesian authorities. He says there are always valid and reasonable grounds for Australian governments to decide not to deal with some matters in open forums: ‘The withholding of some information is vital to the maintenance of good government and public administration, especially in relation to combating criminal activity and conducting international diplomacy.’ Frame says that while such reticence could be interpreted as prima facie evidence of a cover-up, he does not believe that I have shown that SIEV X is ‘anything other than the routine exercise of a government’s discretion to withhold information about current and continuing operations and activities. This does not amount to a conspiracy to cover up wrongdoing.’

Frame’s language thus hints that, if there were any improper aspect to these 353 deaths, it is more likely attributable to Indonesian authorities; but that Australian authorities cannot responsibly investigate this question further without jeopardising their obligations to combat crime and conduct diplomacy.

Frame reaches such exonerating conclusions by ignoring most of the content and argument of my book: the crucial Australian cable traffic and intelligence reports at the time of SIEV X that were concealed from the Senate enquiry and only released later; and the multiple evasions and omissions in sworn official evidence (civilian, police and military) given to Senators.

He ignores the Australian Federal Police’s people smuggling disruption program, whose covert dealings with people smugglers and Indonesian police disruption teams in Indonesia are at the heart of my book. He makes no mention of the botched pursuit by the AFP of the Egyptian people smuggler who organised the SIEV X voyage, Abu Quassey.

He ignores five passed Senate motions in 2002-04, calling for a full-powers independent judicial inquiry into the disruption program and the sinking of SIEV X. The Australian Government has similarly ignored these motions.

Frame dismisses the rich tapestry of survivor accounts as ‘mere journalism’, whose credibility for him is put in question by presumed language and translation difficulties. He disparages (on specious grounds) the Jakarta Harbormaster’s official report of the rescue coordinates where fishing boats picked up forty five survivors. He ignores corroborating Australian official evidence, confirming that the boat sank in the Australian border protection zone of operations.

Without any offered reasons, he condemns (in his Defender review text) Marg Hutton’s scholarly website sievx.com, the indispensable archival resource for serious students of the SIEV X history, as ‘notorious’ and ‘polemical’.

Frame’s review is politically significant because his judgements as Anglican Bishop to the Defence Force must carry credibility and authority.

This review could have the result of intimidating further scholarship about questionable government conduct: sending message to senior people in and around government not to engage with this book, and giving an implicit warning to me to abandon this cause unless I want to risk defamation suits.

Such warnings in the present strained political and administrative climate in Australia are not as laughable as they would be in a well-functioning democracy. It has been remarkable, and frightening, to see over the past three years how few people in Australian public life have dared to breach the SIEV X taboo. The number of brave
people – headed by the admirable Senator John Faulkner – who asked legitimate public questions about SIEV X and the disruption program history is worryingly small. Even after my book, an unspoken ‘Do Not Touch’ warning rope still hangs around SIEV X.

Fortunately, New Matilda is not subject to such self-censorship. My book asks proper questions about a serious case where Australian government accountability seems to have gone off the rails. It is not, in intent or outcome, about defaming any individuals. But in order to tell the history accurately, it had to cite and comment on individual officials’ Senate testimonies. Such public questions need to be admissible in any democracy based on the rule of law, not declared Off Limits. After all, 353 people died here in suspicious circumstances. It matters to find out how and why they died.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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