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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5763

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (5:32 PM) —The report of the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident is important, despite a lot of the political heat and bunfights surrounding it which have led some to dismiss it as just political. There is a lot of important information contained in the report. Even more important information came through the hearings and the evidence tabled in this inquiry which would never otherwise have become public. That is why I believe this to be an important inquiry which provides a valuable resource for people that are interested in this policy area.

The report basically has three key components. There is the `children overboard' incident which initiated it and is a source of a lot of the political heat. My view and the Democrats' view in relation to that is that, clearly, former Minister Reith knew the reports were false, knew the photographs did not depict what he said they did, and chose not to correct the record. It is not the first time that a minister has chosen to not correct the record or to allow a mistaken picture to go out to the Australian community, and unfortunately it will not be the last; it should be condemned nonetheless. But the much bigger issues for the Democrats are the broader information about the operation of the Pacific solution and also the inquiry into the sinking of the SIEVX.

I was instrumental in ensuring, when this proposal was first put forward, that the inquiry would expand its focus beyond just the `children overboard' incident. Whilst that is important, the Democrats believe it pales into insignificance beside the policy ramifications and the human ramifications of the broader Pacific solution. In that area I think the inquiry has been most valuable. It got more information out about the amount of money that is spent on that solution, more information out about the extent of military resources that are devoted to it and about intelligence resources and the human impact, the human reality of how that works.

With the SIEV4—that is, the `children overboard' boat—incident, what I found most valuable was the information that came to light about what happened there, what the reality was, what it actually means and what the boat people are going through. The most absolutely scandalous thing about that incident, in my view, was not about the confusion and then the misleading about whether a child was thrown overboard but that the Australian Navy personnel were forced to intercept a boat and then leave it out there in the middle of the ocean despite their commander's own assessment—and this was from the valuable documents that the committee got—that the boat was marginally seaworthy and significantly overcrowded. That would never have happened in the past, before the government changed its policy in relation to the arrival of asylum seekers by boat. That scandal, which was repeated time and time again with all the boats that were intercepted, is what I find most disgraceful about that incident.

This comes into stark relief when you look at the SIEVX incident, where 353 people tragically drowned just over a year ago. The Navy were not able to find that boat; they were not able to intercept it. I accept that they were not aware that it was where it was. But the key thing is that undoubtedly, on the evidence that was provided of everything that had been done in the past, if the Navy had found that boat before it sank and intercepted it, they would not have taken off the women and children and tried to look after their safety; they would have tried to turn it around and make it sail back to Indonesia.

Safety of life at sea obligations only kick in—and we had evidence confirming this— once a boat is sinking. Until then, the paramount priority that our Navy are forced to operate under, under direction from the government's policy, is to deter and deny entry and to try and turn the vessel around. We did have vessels that were intercepted, turned around and sailed back to Indonesia, including one that was so overcrowded that, for defence personnel to get on the boat to take control of it and turn it around, they actually had to take people off so the defence personnel could fit on. That is a disgrace, and our defence personnel should not be put in that situation.

I support the recommendations and general findings of the committee. I have made some additional comments.

Senator Ferguson —Have you read it all?

Senator BARTLETT —I have read it. It took a long time. I have not read your stuff yet—I cannot wait for that. It is clear that Defence should not be held to blame. It is government policy and the actions in deceiving the Australian public were government actions. The defence personnel were very cooperative with the inquiry and should not be held to blame. The Democrats agree with the concerns expressed by Senator Cook about the many unanswered questions surrounding the SIEVX. Some of those questions could not be answered because of deliberate decisions by Minister Hill to prevent the committee from having access to key witnesses. There needs to be a further independent inquiry into some of those questions, and they are particularly crucial. This report is not only important but also timely because, as I detail in my own comments on page 448, some of the key things about SEIVX go to failings in our intelligence system and mirror concerns that are being expressed now about what may or may not have gone wrong in intelligence operations leading up to the tragic bombings in Bali—another tragedy in which hundreds of lives were lost. The Australian National Audit Office detailed manifold significant problems in the management framework for the inter-agency intelligence systems that are in place.

In the Democrats' view, the extra absurdity and outrage is that the whole Pacific solution policy has meant that all of those intelligence resources and military resources supposedly provided in the context of security for Australians have been diverted towards detecting refugees. All of those hundreds of millions of dollars and all of those defence personnel are being used to detect refugees who are no threat to the security of the Australian public when they could be diverted towards detecting terrorists and assessing terrorist threats—which, tragically, we now know are a very real threat to the security of Australians. The Treasurer talked today about possibly needing to increase defence spending and even increase the tax burden on Australians as a consequence, yet the government is continually willing to throw away hundreds of millions of dollars on something with no security implications whatsoever, purely because it is electorally beneficial. That is a disgrace.

In our comments in this report the Democrats call for the immediate abolition of the Pacific solution. The reason why so many women and children were on that SIEVX boat—hundreds of women and children who drowned—is that the temporary protection visa, which is a significant component of the government's Pacific solution policy, denies family reunion. The only way now for women and children to reunite with husbands and fathers who are already in Australia is to take that option of the boat. That is why so many of them lost their lives. The policy should be scrapped straightaway, and there needs to be an immediate independent investigation into the ongoing questions surrounding our intelligence operations in Indonesia and leading up to the SIEVX sinking.

I would like to pay tribute to Mr Tony Kevin, who has come in for a fair bit of flak—including in this chamber—for his persistence in bringing these concerns to the committee inquiry. I do not agree with some of the allegations he made. I do not believe there is any substance to the suggestion that Australian authorities knew precisely where the boat was but decided to let it sink to make an example; I think that is clearly wrong and that Defence should not be hit with such an allegation. But many issues were raised that clearly would not have been examined—and this issue would not have been examined—without Mr Kevin. There is no doubt about that. I have to say with regard to the government's response that each time we got a little bit further they had to correct their evidence from before. I would have thought that it was in the government's interest to clear up the questions about this, yet the committee had to drag it out piece by piece, correction by correction, and we still had huge numbers of pages provided to us with acres of black lines through them. So I think Mr Kevin's actions need to be acknowledged.

Whilst I am acknowledging people, another group that really needs acknowledgment and thanks is the committee secretariat, because this was a fairly heated inquiry and a lot of demands were placed on them. As we can all see, this is a very large report that they had to put together under very tight time frames. All of them—Brenton Holmes, Alistair Sands, Sarah Bachelard, Judith Wuest and Kerry Olsson—need to be thanked for their efforts. As I say, it is a valuable report and their efforts have contributed to this useful document that will, I think, be significant in assisting further policy development. The Democrats believe that we are clearly breaching our human rights obligations. This inquiry has demonstrated beyond doubt that the government's policy means that people cannot access their fundamental legal rights. Its downgrading of the basic values of human life and human rights clearly demonstrates why we need a change in policy. I should quickly note that there was a submission from the press gallery calling on governments to correct their mistakes. I agree with that, and I have noted in my additional report that it would be handy if the media corrected their mistakes when they make them as well. (Time expired)