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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5751


Senator COOK (4:31 PM) —I present the report of the Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident, together with the Hansard record of proceedings, the report by S.J. Odgers SC—the independent assessor to the committee—and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.


Senator COOK —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Today as I present this report, Australia is grieving the senseless loss of life in Bali and bracing for the possibility that within weeks or months our troops may be at war in Iraq. When Australia as a nation is challenged, our values as a society are also challenged. When our military fights, they risk death and some make the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of our values. We may debate the wisdom of certain military conflicts, but we do not need to debate what it is we stand for. By our history and our practice as a democracy, a feature of our character as Australians is that we value honesty and truth. At election time, while voters may be cynical about political promises, they expect to honestly know the underlying facts. Mr Howard said this himself in 1995 on ABC radio:

We want to assert the very simple principle that truth is absolute—truth is supreme, that truth is never disposable in political life.

The values which we embrace as a nation and which define what it is to be Australian are not fulfilled by words. They are made real by deeds. This report seeks to uphold those values by telling the truth. That is what the Senate asked us to do and, within the limitations imposed by the government, that is what we have done. Significantly, every senator that sat on this inquiry, except those from the government, agree on these findings.

This inquiry came into being by resolution of the Senate on 13 February this year. The Senate expanded its reference on 13 March, which led us to an examination of the SIEVX tragedy. Our reporting date was extended four times because of the complexity we encountered and because of a desire to conscientiously discharge the responsibilities delegated to us by this chamber. In all, the committee sat on 15 days, often from early morning until late at night. It heard 60 witnesses—all in Canberra—and generated 2,181 pages of transcript. Now, eight months and 10 days later, we table our report. It contains 49 findings and 16 recommendations.

The report comes in four parts: first, the main report endorsed by Senators Bartlett, Murphy, Faulkner, Collins and me—all the non-government senators, who are united in our findings; second, additional comments by Senators Bartlett, Faulkner and Collins; third, a minority report from government Senators Brandis, Ferguson and Mason; and, fourth, the report from the assessor, Mr Stephen Odgers SC.

These are the basic facts of the inquiry, but the significance of the inquiry is, of course, in its subject. This was an inquiry into an act of public duplicity on the eve of a federal election. The Senate asked us to investigate. We asked: what actually happened? Were children thrown into the sea? How was it that this story came to be commented on by ministers and the Prime Minister and made front-page news throughout Australia? Why was there a failure to correct the record when the truth quickly became known? How were photographs of a courageous rescue by naval ratings falsely used to prove a lie? What were the facts behind the tragedy of the deaths at sea of 353 men, women and children when SIEVX sank? What were the policy underpinnings of the Pacific solution, its background and circumstances?

But the significance of these events goes to an even deeper issue, to the very heart of our democracy—the right of voters to know the truth before they vote. I believe the inquiry has delivered on all of its obligations but, regrettably, I cannot stand here today and say, `Mission accomplished.' I cannot say that because, manifestly, our mission is incomplete. We have not been able to accomplish it because our path has been blocked by the cabinet—that is, the executive wing of government has used its power to prevent the parliamentary scrutiny of itself.

What do they have to hide? The pertinent questions we want ministers, the Prime Minister and their staff to answer are: what did they know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it? Today, we have incomplete answers to these questions, but not so incomplete however that there is not enough evidence for us to find that the then defence minister, Peter Reith, deliberately deceived the nation and not so incomplete that there is not enough evidence to raise serious questions about the Prime Minister's probity.

It was always the case that we could not call serving members of the House of Representatives. That meant we could not call the Prime Minister and Mr Ruddock. We accept that, but there is ample precedent for calling their advisers and Mr Reith's advisers, some of whom were at the time, and remain, public servants subject to estimates scrutiny. We would have liked to have had the sworn testimony of Mr Miles Jordana, Mr Mike Scrafton, Mr Ross Hampton and Mr Peter Hendy. The public interest would have been served if we had had that evidence. We were unable to call them because the Howard government put them beyond our reach—deliberately.

We also wanted to hear from Rear Admiral Gates and Ms Liesa Davies, but they were blocked from giving evidence by Minister Hill. It was not an iron curtain that fenced these witnesses off; it was a curtain of executive privilege that descended to thwart this Senate inquiry and deny the right of the parliament to thoroughly scrutinise the actions of the government at the time of a critical election, when border protection and asylum seekers were lively issues. Some may say that blocking our inquiry was smart politics. Some may even contend that we have no right to inquire into the actions of ministers. Whatever arguments are put, one thing is for sure: this is not open, transparent government—the kind of government, it should be noted, that Mr Howard promised Australia. Surely those arguments do not count alongside the right of the public to know the truth, and the fact that Australia was lied to at election time when the nation was in caretaker mode.

The Senate Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident quickly became known, for commonsense reasons, as the `children overboard' inquiry. For the same ease of reference, the document I table today should be known as the `truth overboard' report, because that is what it finds happened to the truth. Our first finding is that no children were thrown overboard from SIEV4. Other findings are that photographs released to the media on 10 October as evidence of children thrown overboard on 7 October were actually pictures taken the following day, 8 October, whilst SIEV4 was sinking. We find that by 11 October 2001 the naval chain of command had concluded that no children had been thrown overboard from SIEV4. The Chief of Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, was informed at the very least that there were serious doubts attaching to the report.

We find that on 11 October 2001 Minister Reith and his staff were separately informed that the photographs were not of the alleged children overboard events of 7 October; they were of the foundering of SIEV4 on 8 October. We find that, on or about 17 October 2001, Admiral Barrie informed Minister Reith that there were serious doubts about the veracity of the report that children had been thrown overboard from SIEV4. And we find that, on 7 November 2001, the then Acting Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Angus Houston, informed Minister Reith that children had not been thrown overboard from SIEV4. We find that on four other occasions the lack, or dubious nature, of evidence for the `children overboard' report was drawn to the attention of the minister or his staff by officers from Defence. We find that, on 7 November 2001, Minister Reith informed the Prime Minister that at least there were doubts about whether the photographs represented the alleged children overboard incident or events connected with SIEV4's sinking.

The findings go on to note that, despite all this advice, no correction or retraction was made by any member of the federal government before the election on 10 November 2001. The committee goes on to conclude this section of its findings by saying:

Minister Reith made a number of misleading statements implying published photographs and a video supported the original report that children had been thrown overboard well after he had received definitive advice to the contrary.

And:

The Committee finds that Mr Reith deceived the Australian people during the 2001 election campaign concerning the state of the evidence for the claim that children had been thrown overboard from SIEV 4.

Perhaps the most insidious issue that the inquiry highlights is that in August last year, when the government was gearing up to play the border protection card, Minister Reith quietly ordered that all important ADF press communications be centralised and coordinated through his office. This broke a century of tradition. It trespassed on the autonomy of the Australian military, an autonomy that has been exercised even in wartime. It meant that defence force issues could be manipulated for political purposes. This was a breathtaking intrusion into the independence of the military, and marked a new nadir in the politicisation of the Public Service. Countries that do this sort of thing typically are not democracies. I note Senator Hill has changed this instruction, but that is not enough. If only one reform flows from this report then it should be that set out in recommendation 9. If that recommendation is adopted it will go some way to preventing the manipulation of the armed forces of this country from ever occurring again.

It is salutary to remember that the truth in this case may never have surfaced if Commander Banks had not inadvertently spoken to a Channel 10 research assistant, and the Australian had not reported leaks from disgruntled Adelaide crew members on Christmas Island. These were accidents in breach of the Reith media mandate. If the order had remained strictly enforced, we may have never learnt the truth of this case.

Senator Faulkner and Senator Collins will say a lot more about SIEVX, and I expect that Senator Bartlett will also speak about the Pacific solution part of our reference. SIEVX was a genuine tragedy. Many of the issues we are concerned about have not been fully resolved, but they need to be. We recommend that there be an independent inquiry into all the events surrounding SIEVX, including the extent of the so-called `disruption activities'. Since our inquiry concluded, more information has come into the public domain through media reports. Senator Faulkner has spoken about this in the Senate. To do the job properly a full judicial inquiry is necessary.

I reject the findings of the minority report. It is long on name-calling and political rhetoric. It is wafer-thin on facts or analysis. Unfortunately, it seems to take its theme from efforts by the government to discredit the inquiry. Ironically, the greatest compliment the inquiry has received is from the government. Yesterday, Senator Hill released a statement announcing steps the government was taking to make sure the children overboard affair could not be repeated. He has not gone far enough, but that is not the point I make. He did not choose to make these changes earlier when the government's in-house reports came down. He did it yesterday, maybe in an effort to pre-empt our report, certainly to provide a fig leaf to cover the government's embarrassment and, obviously, because it was necessary. If there had been no inquiry it is very likely no changes would have been made.

As a nation, we are keen to distinguish ourselves from those types of countries that are not democratic. They do not have our good human rights records, our free media or our non-partisan defence forces. They have government owned media with totalitarian control of public information, and the military is used as a political arm of the state. What distinguishes us is that we like to believe that this could not happen here. The only thing we need to do to for it to happen here by stealth is to pretend that somehow the truth of what happened in the children overboard affair is not really important. After all, they were only asylum seekers and, anyway, the government members say it is sour grapes by us.

But the truth matters—of course it matters. We all know it matters. This report says it matters. And if we pretend it does not matter or that the children overboard lies were just some smart political game, we do that at our own peril and the peril of our democracy, our political processes, and good government, whichever party is in power. I thank the secretariat for the work that they have done in supporting us in this inquiry. Their efficiency helped us considerably. They operated at a high level of competence and I thank them.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)—Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.


Senator Cook —Mr Acting Deputy President, now that I have made my speech I rise on a point of order and seek your ruling on it. The minority report of the government senators on the committee refers to other members of the committee in terms which I believe are contrary to standing order 193. The terms to which I particularly refer are `hypocrisy', `insidious intellectual dishonesty' and `selective and misleading reference to the evidence' used with application to the majority senators. Past rulings have indicated that it is not in order for senators to breach standing order 193 by quoting documents containing language contrary to the standing order. I ask that you rule that it is also not in order to use such language in a committee report or to repeat such language in a debate. Because the report has now been tabled it is automatically ordered to be published with parliamentary privilege. There is, therefore, no effective remedy to the initial breach of standing orders by the minority report. However, your ruling on the subject would provide guidance on this question for future reference and would also prevent the debate on the report from degenerating.


Senator Kemp —Mr Acting Deputy President, on the point of order—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Kemp, if I rule on the point of order first it may be irrelevant for you to speak to the point of order.


Senator Kemp —I thought you might like to hear two sides before you rule.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —I am happy to acquiesce to that. I will hear your response to the point of order, Senator Kemp.


Senator Kemp —Mr Acting Deputy President, I point out to you that Senator Cook has used very extreme and strong language in relation to his descriptions during his speech on Mr Peter Reith, a former distinguished minister. It is excessively precious for Senator Cook, who has spent 10 minutes defaming and vilifying a former distinguished minister of the Howard government, to worry about the comments that have been made by my colleagues about him.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —I will refer the complaint in Senator Cook's point of order to the President. In the interim I will follow assiduously those contributions that will no doubt be made during my time in the chair. I will ensure, as near as practicable, that there are no breaches of standing orders.