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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5803

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (7:58 PM) —It is a pleasure, in returning to the report of the Senate Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident, which was tabled earlier today, to follow Senator Payne with her references to the admirable behaviour of our Defence Force personnel. She has relayed her experience akin to the experience that I had in the previous year of our new parliamentary program on the HMAS Adelaide.

I want to return briefly to the additional comments that I added to our report, where I highlighted that one of the very clear findings of this report, one of the very clear things proven in this report, is the absolute integrity of our Defence Force personnel. The many sad reflections that have been made in a number of other areas can be dealt with another time. However, I want to extend the comments that I made on the culture that had been reported to me from some defence personnel which had been developed in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and focus tonight on just one small element of how that culture developed. Looking at the government's People Smuggling Task Force, which was headed by Ms Jane Halton, I would like to go to the findings that the committee made in relation to that task force. We found:

The Taskforce failed to observe certain key principles of best practice in the conduct of its operations, thereby exposing itself to inappropriate levels of risk in the management of information. The Taskforce failed to establish at the outset a control structure appropriate to the nature of the activities upon which it was embarked. Overall, it lacked a clear governance framework defining accountability and reporting arrangements and the roles and responsibilities of the various participants. In particular:

Copies of advices to the government prepared by the Taskforce and other outcomes of Taskforce deliberations, were not distributed to the participating agencies that contributed to those deliberations, thereby denying agencies the opportunity to correct errors or to clarify misleading information.

The Taskforce's proceedings and decisions were not sufficiently well minuted, thereby preventing a reasonable record of the Taskforce's activities from being available to its many participants, and rendering the activities of the Taskforce largely inaccessible to subsequent scrutiny.

There was considerable variation in the manner of `reporting back' by participants to their home agencies. In many instances it was insufficient to ensure a coherent engagement of the agencies with the Taskforce and inhibited the adequate `hand over' of advice between the various representatives from the same agency who attended Taskforce meetings on different occasions.

Within the Taskforce and between the Taskforce and agencies and/or ministers, information flows were often poorly managed with inadequate attention being paid to risk mitigation and the detection and correction of errors in information.

The Committee is not questioning the integrity of the individual participants on the Taskforce, but finds substantial weaknesses in its basic administrative operations, including record keeping, risk management and reporting back.

Beyond that statement, tonight I would like to reflect on the management of the People Smuggling Task Force and of course its manager, Ms Jane Halton. Ms Halton was involved in a policy that was playing chicken with people's lives. One might question the full role of her behaviour in this, but it is clear from examples such as the one I highlight when I show excerpts from the log of the HMAS Adelaide that this is what in fact transpired.

I take the Senate again to the log references that are part of the additional comments that I made to the report. In respect of SIEV4, at 7.51 zulu time the boarding party `request to move children and women off'. But at 10.09 zulu they are still on the ship, and we have the recommendation to `put people in the water' on the double. At 10.36, the ship is `contacting parliament on the crisis'. We have people in the water and we are contacting parliament on the crisis, according to this log. Finally, at 11.00 zulu—which is 51 minutes after these people were put in the water—HMAS Adelaide's RHIBs were instructed to bring children on board the Adelaide.

How can it be that the discussions that were going through the task force and through PM&C in relation to how to manage these asylum seekers allowed people to be put in the water for 50 minutes? Compare that with Ms Halton's statements that she was concerned about women and the garb that they were wearing—I think she referred to it as the Hajib, although it is probably better described as the Burqua—and how they might survive in the water in such garb. People were in the water for 51 minutes.

If we go to SIEV10, we know two women died. We still do not know the full details about how or why they died, but we know that they died and they were in the water. Yet, if you look at this log reference from the HMAS Adelaide, you can see that the servicemen involved—the people who were in the boarding party—were saying at 7.51, almost three hours earlier, `Take these women and children off.' And we need to know who stopped them. Who was playing chicken with these people's lives? A concern expressed by Ms Halton that she was concerned about women in this sort of garb being in the water beggars belief when you read things such as these logs and see what happened to people.

But that is not the only problem with Ms Halton's evidence. If you look at her evidence, you will see 53 occasions when she just cannot recall. There are another 10 occasions when she cannot remember. There is a strange element to her evidence. When she is explaining something that works in the favour of the position that she is trying to maintain for the government, her memory is crystal clear, but when she is being questioned on conflicting or damaging evidence you observe memory loss, lack of recall, fidgetiness and like behaviour.

If we look today at what the reward has been for what I would describe as a very convenient memory, Ms Halton has been well rewarded. She is now the secretary of one of the biggest Commonwealth departments. But what I think is worse, and what I think has been a slap in the face for these asylum seekers whom she played chicken with to some degree, is that she received the Public Service medal for policy reform on illegal immigration. I say tonight that she should hand that medal back! What this committee report states about the behaviour of the task force and the culture in PM&C indicates quite clearly that she has no right to claim that medal. She has been involved in some degree in playing chicken with people's lives and she should return that medal to the Australian public.

Senate adjourned at 8.07 p.m.