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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5771

Senator MASON (6:09 PM) —On behalf of the government senators I would like to thank the secretariat for all their work on the preparation of the report, in particular over the last couple days where they went above and beyond the call of duty. I agree with what Senator Cook and Senator Bartlett said: this report will stand the test of time. But not for the reasons they gave. This report is perhaps the longest—and certainly the weightiest—testament to sour grapes in Australian political history. This committee inquiry was supposed to be the vehicle for revenge for the Labor Party's crushing defeat in November 2001. This was the vehicle for their vendetta. If you want to know about Labor Party motivation for this report, Mr Acting Deputy President, the motivation can quickly be calculated from having a look at what Senator Faulkner said to Admiral Barrie. This was Senator Faulkner in intimate mode, sounding positively Clintonesque. He said to Admiral Barrie:

... I know what you feel ... But I hope you understand the way that some of us on our side of the parliament feel when we see some of our colleagues who are not returned in a federal election.

The motivation, as I say, was defeat at the general election. There was no search for truth. This was simply a vehicle for a vendetta. Ms Macklin, now Deputy Leader of the Opposition, said to Young Labor in Queensland on 24 February:

In Parliament over the past two weeks, day after day we have seen further damning evidence that this Government will sacrifice all pretence of truth and honesty to achieve its political ends.

The children overboard affair has revealed the magnitude of their deceit.

And so it went on. Make no mistake: when this inquiry was called together and the Senate commenced its inquiry, the Labor Party thought they were on a winner. They thought they would gain some political mileage out of this. But, oh dear, in the end this inquiry was not about children going overboard; it was about Labor going over the top. It was not about lost accountability; it was about a lost election. It was never about finding the truth; it was simply about finding a hammer or a vehicle to belt the government. That is what this inquiry was about. It was a political vendetta of the highest order, a payback, indeed, a witch-hunt or a show trial. The truth is—this is the hardest thing for the hardheads of the Labor Party, and this is what they do not like—that Labor misjudged it. They misjudged public sentiment before the election. They did not realise that the Australian public would back the Howard government's strong border protection policy. After the Labor Party were so crushingly defeated, the bourgeois left that run the Labor Party these days thought, `We will run the issue again.' Really clever! The bourgeois left said, `We will run the issue again in the inquiry, but this time we will win.' What has happened six months later? An ignominious and absolutely pathetic backdown and defeat. They set up this inquiry to embarrass the government, and in the end they embarrassed themselves.

The inquiry has totally backfired on the Labor Party for two reasons. Firstly, as Senator Brandis said, Labor were not able to find evidence to smear the government, public servants, the military or senior ministers. They tried hard. They tried hard but they failed. Secondly, instead the inquiry unearthed more and more evidence about the behaviour of illegal boat people and the people smugglers. This stream of information, which was adduced by Senator Brandis, in fact convinced the people of Australia that the Howard government had the right policies. And every time a new bit of information came out, the Labor Party just hated it.

The pattern of conduct that was exposed during the inquiry makes for startling reading. Most of the dozen interceptions by the Royal Australian Navy involved behaviour on the part of boat people and people smugglers that most Australians found really disturbing and also quite appalling. It included, amongst many other things, the destruction of navigational equipment and threats of violence against Navy personnel and other illegal immigrants, particularly women and children. The pattern of conduct also included threats of suicide or self-harm, hunger strikes, the lighting of fires, sabotaging the vessels and, finally, scuttling the boats so that the Royal Australian Navy would have to succumb to moral blackmail, pick up the refugees and take them back for onshore processing here in Australia. That was the aim of that pattern of conduct.

We put the facts out to the Australian people, and more heartily than ever they endorsed government policy. And didn't the Labor Party hate that! Establishing the pattern of conduct did three things. First, it vindicated Australia's tougher border protection policy, including the Pacific solution. Scuttling your boat in Australian territorial waters no longer pays dividends and no longer means you will be taken to Australia. The first thing the pattern of conduct did was justify that policy. Second, it established the context in which this entire event occurred. When the call came from Commander Banks through to Brigadier Silverstone and right up through military high command to public servants and senior ministers people were concerned about the report that a child had been thrown overboard. They were concerned, but no-one was particularly surprised. That is the point. The atmosphere at the time lent itself to the distinct possibility that a child may have been thrown overboard. That is why government senators went to so much trouble to adduce all this evidence before the inquiry. It established the atmosphere and the context in which the military was operating at that time. Third, and more importantly, it explodes the entire Labor case that the children overboard affair was motivated by the government's determination to use the affair for sordid political purposes.

Mr Reith knew about the other illegal entry vessels. He knew about SIEV1 right through to SIEV12. He knew all about the pattern of conduct—the sabotaging of the navigation equipment, the lighting of the fires, the pouring of petrol on the vessels, the threats of violence against Royal Australian Navy staff and so forth. He knew about that. He knew that a child had been dropped overboard from SIEV7—he knew that as well. But did he use any of that information for political purposes in the lead-up to the election? Did he? No, he did not. And that explodes the entire Labor Party case. They say this entire matter was manicured for political purposes. In fact, what happened was that Mr Reith did not use the information he knew about. That, more than anything, explodes the Labor Party case. He did not need to make anything up because he knew of far more significant and far, far more serious events.

In the end, Senator Brandis is right. This was a waste of taxpayers' money—thousands of pages, hundreds of hours of testimony, thousands of taxpayers' dollars spent on this inquiry. After weeks of hearing scores of witnesses there is still no smoking gun despite the very, very best efforts of the Labor Party to find one. I found it quite interesting that the Labor Party started off going after the Prime Minister to skewer his credibility. Before long, they moved off the Prime Minister. They thought, `No—a bit hard. We'll go after Mr Reith.'

Senator Brandis —No evidence there either.

Senator MASON —There was no evidence there either. `We'll go after Admiral Barrie instead,' they said. And then of course Air Vice Marshall Titheridge, Rear Admiral Smith and Rear Admiral Ritchie—no evidence against them. What did the Labor Party do then? They lowered their sights again and went after public servants like Ms Halton—no evidence against her either. And in the end the best shot they had was in this context quite a junior public servant. Poor old Dr Hammer allegedly inappropriately interfered with a witness over a cup of coffee at the Kurrajong Hotel. Of course that is the site of the death of the Labor Party's dreams in contexts other than just this one.

The Labor Party had their sights set on the Prime Minister at first but in the end the guns were sighted on Dr Hammer. Dr Hammer was examined up hill and down dale for hours about his conduct, how he had inappropriately dealt with Commander King and tried to influence him. So what happened? He went to the Senate Privileges Committee. And what did the Senate Privileges Committee find? What it found was that there was no evidence to support any allegation against Dr Hammer. That was the Labor Party's big hit. They couldn't get the PM, they couldn't get Minister Reith, they couldn't get the military, they couldn't get the senior public servants so they thought, `We'll go after a middle-level public servant.' They couldn't even get him! There simply was not the evidence they thought there was.

This example is far from exceptional. The whole inquiry is littered with similar failed attempts to implicate the government, the Public Service and the military in this pathetically imagined grand conspiracy. Senator Ferguson and Senator Brandis are right that they had conclusions they wanted to reach and they did everything they could to contort and distort the evidence to reach those conclusions. Guesswork, speculation, misinterpretation—in fact, a grand theory that would have made Oliver Stone very proud. Admiral Barrie, Ms Halton, Dr Hammer and the Prime Minister all came under the gun in a really pathetic attempt to discredit the government. It is no wonder that in the end this inquiry embarrassed the Labor Party. The only smoking gun in this case was the one they held to their own heads.

As I mentioned before, not only did the inquiry not embarrass the government but quite the opposite. It uncovered a pattern of conduct on the part of the illegal boat people and the people-smugglers, a pattern of conduct that until recently was unknown to the public. Mr Reith and the government never used the information they had available to them for political purposes. Labor said they wanted to find the truth. They have claimed that from the word go. In the famous words of Jack Nicholson in the film A Few Good Men, `You want the truth? You can't handle the truth.' The truth is—sadly for the Labor Party—that people in all the circumstances acted reasonably and conscientiously. There was a failure to correct information in the military chain of command, but there was no grand conspiracy—no material for Oliver Stone at all. Case closed.

Question agreed to.