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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26673


Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) (4:32 PM) —This is an unprecedented abuse of the Senate. It is unprecedented to set up a Senate select committee after an election has been called in order that it might be used as a campaign tool against one party.


Senator Jacinta Collins —Why are we sitting?


Senator HILL —I will get to all that.


Senator Ferguson —Speak up!


Senator HILL —I will repeat myself in case the distraction meant that what I said was not heard. This is a Senate select committee being set up at public expense after an election has been called to meet during the course of the election in order to seek to make a political point against one particular party. It is the Australian Labor Party joining with the Greens and, I suspect, with the Australian Democrats to establish this committee to call a witness who they believe will give evidence that will damage the government, and they will do that at public expense. They will pass a resolution today that gives them the numbers to control the committee: when it will meet, how often it will meet, which witnesses it will call, which witnesses it will not call, whether it swears its witnesses or whether it subpoenas its witnesses. If you look at the order that they seek to have passed, the motion says:

That the committee be provided with all necessary staff, facilities and resources and be empowered to appoint persons with specialist knowledge for the purposes of the committee with the approval of the President.

It is set up to do a job. It is set up for the specific political purpose of damaging the government, and it is being set up, as I said, in an unprecedented way after an election has been called. As I said during question time and as I say again, I know of no other political abuse of the Senate of this type. It clearly should be an embarrassment to the Independents. I do not think anything would embarrass the Australian Labor Party but the fact that the Independents have been sucked into this abuse by the Australian Labor Party is, I think, particularly disappointing.

It is true that they were even going to go so far as to demand that the committee report—in other words, make a finding that the Labor Party would control—before the election was held. The draft of the motion that was given to the Government Whip this morning provided for a reporting date of 7 October. It would seem that even Senator Faulkner, when he reflected upon that this morning, was too embarrassed to come into the chamber and move a later reporting date, so he moved the later reporting date without giving us notice that he had changed his mind. That was supposed to just slip through. What it amounts to, however, is the Labor Party using its numbers in conjunction with two Independent groupings to establish a campaign tool that will be utilised at public expense, during the course of this campaign, against the government's interests. That is a disgraceful abuse and it should be seen as such. It should be seen as a sham. That is what disturbs me most—that, because it will appear under the order as a select committee of the Senate, it will therefore gain the legitimacy of the Senate. That is the abuse that is occurring here.


Senator Ferguson —It's a show trial.


Senator HILL —As Senator Ferguson says, it is a show trial being given the legitimacy of the Senate. The public will believe this is actually work being done by the Senate when in fact this is just work being done by the Labor Party and its collaborators in the Greens and the Australian Democrats under the guise of the Senate. I think that is a disgrace, and I hope that before it is too late the Independents will realise that is the case and vote down this attempted abuse.

Senator Faulkner, who is clearly becoming a touch embarrassed by all of this, said that because the Senate had to sit—as he puts it—it therefore had to deal with this particular issue. Last week the Labor Party announced that it was going to do this—to, in effect, have a go at the Prime Minister through this process. The Prime Minister did not prorogue the parliament because if he had done so Senator Faulkner would have argued publicly that the Prime Minister had something to hide. The Prime Minister has nothing to hide in this instance, as should have been evident when in the last campaign he put on the record the videotape that did not really prove either side of the argument. Even though it did not assist the Prime Minister, he put it on the public record because he believed the public had a right to be informed. The Prime Minister received two statements last week that also did not assist him but immediately decided to put them on the record because the public have a right to be informed. This is a Prime Minister who has nothing to hide—nothing to hide at all. If he had not allowed the Senate to sit, it would have been said by the Labor Party that he was not prepared to face scrutiny.

Yesterday I asked Senator Faulkner if he was serious about this task, because I really doubted that, when it came to the crunch, Senator Faulkner would sign on to abuse of this type and dimension. I said to him, `Do you really plan to go ahead with this? If you do not, I have advice that under standing order 55 an absolute majority could change the sitting times of the Senate.' Of course, that was not the way the Labor Party wanted to go, because it wants to use this abuse for its short-term political goal, no matter what might be the long-term consequences of the precedent that it is establishing. So the Labor Party was not interested in that. But it is a bit cheeky of Senator Faulkner then to come into the Senate today and say that we really have to go through this sham because the sitting pattern of the Senate has forced us to sit and we have no choice. The Senate could actually pass some important legislation that is on the Notice Paper today. Then it would be doing something useful.

It was said by Senator Faulkner that we on this side of the table wish to attack the integrity of Mr Scrafton. We have no interest in attacking the integrity of Mr Scrafton. It is true that, a few weeks ago in his letter to the Australian and in other public statements, he did say things that were inconsistent with the evidence that he gave to the Prime Minister and Cabinet inquiry after the last election.


Senator Jacinta Collins —No, he didn't.


Senator HILL —That is true. I really do not care why he has done that. That is his business. We are not interested in Mr Scrafton in this, and the Labor Party is not interested in Mr Scrafton except that it wants to use him as a tool to attack the Prime Minister's personal standing. In some ways, I regret that Mr Scrafton has allowed himself to be drawn into this sham—this abuse by the Labor Party. I would be interested to know whether the Labor Party gave him a call and asked whether he actually wanted to appear before the Senate inquiry that is being set up here today. I doubt very much whether it did that. Why is the Labor Party wishing to so personalise this campaign? Why is it wanting to drag this campaign into the gutter when it really should be all about the alternative programs that are being offered to the Australian people? The Australian people should be able to choose between the different tax policies, security policies, health policies and education policies. Why is he wishing to turn this into a personalised campaign and drag it into the gutter? It is, of course, because that is the nature of Mr Latham. That is his style. As he has said on so many occasions, he is a hater. He said to the Bulletin on 26 June 2002:

I'm a hater. Part of the tribalness of politics is to really dislike the other side with intensity. And the more I see of them the more I hate them.

Again, on 26 June 2002 on 2GB he said:

... everyone's got hate in their lives ... it's just part of life. I hope my little boy hates a Liberal Prime Minister who sells out our national interests. I grew up in a family that used to hate Bob Menzies.

Is this the Mr Latham who goes on television each night talking about reading stories to his children before bed and about the responsibilities of parenthood? Is this really the same man who at the same time boasts that he is a hater and wishes to turn his children into haters? This is why Mr Latham wants to run a campaign in the gutter on this occasion rather than face up to addressing the alternatives.


Senator Crossin —You're dragging it there.


Senator HILL —No, the Labor Party is dragging it into the gutter. The Labor Party wishes to personalise this campaign. It is the Labor Party that is trying to avoid a debate on policies, ideas and visions for Australia. A lot has been said also about the circumstances in the `children overboard' affair. If you were to believe what you now hear, you would believe that the government was never told that there were children overboard—that the boat people had not dropped people overboard. That was exactly what the government was told.


Senator Jacinta Collins —Get out of the gutter!


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Watson)—Senator Collins, please desist. It is disorderly.


Senator HILL —The government was told by the Department of Defence that there were children overboard—that, from this particular unauthorised vessel, children were dropped into the water—and the government reported that to the public. But if you listened to what is being said today you would believe that that was never said to the government and that there was never a basis for that report to have been made. Let us remind ourselves for a moment what was happening on that awful morning of 7 October 2001. I invite honourable senators to refer to the log of HMAS Adelaide as it was put before the Senate committee. The senators on the other side no longer wish the Australian public to reflect on this. As early as five o'clock in the morning, reports were coming in and being recorded in the log that persons were on the side of the boat ready to jump overboard.


Senator Crossin —Why?


Senator HILL —Because they did not want the boat turned around.



Senator HILL —It was their business to jump—`They can jump overboard,' says the honourable senator. It does not matter that the sailors have got to rescue them and save their lives. That does not matter at all. At 5.08 the boat people were telling others to jump overboard. This went on for some time, and an action was taken to disable the vessel. At 5.50 the report came in from the sailors who were in the boat that they believed the last person overboard was a child. That was recorded in the log. It went on. At 5.57 the log recorded: `Appear to be preparing to throw small child overboard.' This is not invented by the government; this is in the logbook of HMAS Adelaide. Threats were recorded at 6.08 that, if the people in the boat were not given the answer that they would go to Australia, they would jump out of the boat in five minutes. At 6.26 the log recorded: `Threatening to throw women and children overboard first.' At 7.29 the log recorded: `Started demolishing the SIEV'—the boat. And so I could go on, right up to the events of the following day when, as we now know with the wisdom of hindsight, individuals were again in the water and had to be rescued.

Out of these events the report came through Defence officials to the government—not in dispute—that the children had been thrown overboard. It was right at the end of the campaign, predictably through the Australian, that suggestions were made that, despite all these threats and the evidence of a child being held overboard, maybe the children were not dropped into the water. What was the Prime Minister's response to this? He required that the video be examined—the video that could have cleared it up one way or another. When it did not assist the Prime Minister, what did he do? He said, `Make it public,' just as he did last week when he got those two statements from the military officials Powell and Noonan. They did not help the Prime Minister, but he said immediately: `Make it public. I've got nothing to hide.'

It is true that Mr Scrafton seems to have a different recollection of two phone calls. He claims that there were three phone calls, so there are even differences in that regard—a different recollection to that of the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister's staff and the others who were with the Prime Minister. That is not in dispute. There are differences of recollection. The matter could be left there because all of it is on the public record. But the Labor Party are not prepared to leave it there, because they reckon they can use it in this campaign as well. I do not mind their using it in this campaign; what I mind is their abusing the processes of the Senate to use it in this campaign—to set up a Senate committee at public expense after the election has been called, with the sole purpose of putting on the table evidence controlled by the Labor Party, only the evidence the Labor Party and the Independents want which they believe will give them a political advantage in this campaign. It is that abuse which is such a disgrace. All Australians should understand that it is an abuse.

It is no attempt to, as Senator Faulkner said in his speech today, get at the truth. The Labor Party are not interested in the truth in this matter. There has never been an attempt to get at the truth. If they had wanted Mr Scrafton to give evidence they could have subpoenaed him at the last hearing, but they decided not to do so because they suspected his evidence might not be of help. Now that they believe his evidence will be useful they will set up a new inquiry after the election has been called, suck in the Democrats and the Greens, put his evidence on the table and say, `Here, this helps our gutter campaign against the Prime Minister.'

I urge the Senate, before it is too late, not to create this precedent today—not to abuse the Senate and its institutional structure in this way. The Labor Party should go out and do its worst during this campaign. It has already signalled that it wants a personalised, dirty campaign—that it does not want a campaign on the issues. It should go out and do its worst, because the people of Australia do not want to hear that. But to abuse the Senate in this way is not something that it should do, even for short-term political gain. On that basis, I urge honourable senators to throw this motion out before it is too late.