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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 18

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (10:37 AM) —I was a member of the Select Committee on the Scrafton Evidence and also of the original Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident inquiry, known more colloquially as the `children overboard inquiry'. This, I guess, is `children overboard part 2'. I would like to thank the committee secretary and staff for enduring this experience, for doing so with professionalism and politeness and for producing a capable report at the end of it. This affair has been called a lot of things: `children overboard', `truth overboard', `sanity overboard'. We have seen a couple of examples of `perspective overboard' just in the last couple of contributions. The thing that is frustrating me more and more is that the real, forgotten group of people in this issue are the refugees who were on that boat who were slandered by this government, by the Prime Minister, by a range of other ministers, with a grossly false allegation and who have never received any apology, despite the fact that the facts show—

Senator Brandis —Why don't you talk about the facts, Senator Bartlett?

Senator BARTLETT —And you try to even talk about it and all you cop is a volley of abuse from the government senators, who say, `Talk about the facts.' The central, No. 1, undeniable fact that not even the government members would dispute is that those refugees on that boat did not throw any children overboard. They were slandered by this Prime Minister saying, `We do not want people like that in this country'; they were slandered by the other government ministers. They know that it did not happen and, after three years, there has never been the faintest attempt at apologising to that group of people and those people have never had a chance to put their case on the public record. Over two inquiries we have had day after day after day of hearings and evidence from all sorts of other people, but the people who were actually at the centre of the allegation have never had a chance to put their view on the public record. The disgrace is that, three years later, not only do those people not have apologies but 14 of them, as I understand it, are still locked up on Nauru as we speak—three years later, despite never having committed a crime. That is the outrage here.

Everybody would have their view about whether or not the Prime Minister misinformed the Australian people or deliberately did not correct the record. There is now sufficient evidence out there for people to form their own opinion on that, but the full story is not out there because the government continued to prevent people from appearing. But the fact is that there is sufficient evidence for people to form a reasonably informed opinion, and people's opinions will differ. Mine is that there is no doubt that Minister Reith was aware that the public were being misled and did nothing to correct the record. Following the extra evidence from Mr Scrafton, I think it stretches the very edges of credibility to suggest that the Prime Minister was not aware, at least by the stage of his Press Club address, before the election.

That is my opinion. The fact is that I found Mr Scrafton to be quite a credible witness. We saw a very skilfully performed typical barrister's trick from Senator Brandis, trying to look for any tiny discrepancy in Mr Scrafton's evidence and then blowing it up into some huge irrelevant saga to draw attention away from the basic consistency of Mr Scrafton's evidence and the basic corroboration that Mr Scrafton received from people he said he told it to three years ago when he had no reason to make that up at the time. People corroborated what he said. This is a person who had nothing to gain by making these statements now. He was well aware that, in putting his head up, he was going to get it kicked—and he got it kicked and he will continue to get it kicked by this government and have his reputation slurred and slandered.

Senator Ferguson —He might have had a political motive, Andrew.

Senator Brandis —Do you think he might have had a political motive?

Senator BARTLETT —We will get the sort of barrage of abuse and yelling that we get even in this sort of situation when you try to simply present an opinion. All you cop is yelling and abuse. Mr Scrafton knew that that was what he would get, and he will to some extent go down with that continually being put against his name. To that extent, I think he should be congratulated on having the courage to put his hand up.

There is a legacy here. The legacy and the value of this situation is not whether or not the Senate had made a finding that somebody lied or somebody did not. I do not really think that is the value of this. But the real value of this process of the two inquiries is that I think it will be much more difficult in the future for governments to get away with the sorts of things that this government did in 2001 in deliberately not correcting the record on a significant issue when they knew that it was false, hiding behind ministerial staff, conscripting the Public Service or significant sections of a department in that aim and putting all of them in an impossible position. That will be far more difficult in the future.

I hope that in the future Senate committees will also be more willing to push the envelope in getting important witnesses to appear in areas of sufficient public interest. The other thing that clearly came out in this inquiry—and I have drawn attention to this in my additional comments—is that, if the committee originally had pressed the matter and subpoenaed Mr Scrafton and others—

Senator Brandis —Don't blame us! It was the Labor senators who voted against your motion, Andrew; we didn't.

Senator BARTLETT —I think I will make that point in a moment—thank you. He had specifically said—and I have drawn attention to it—that, if he had been subpoenaed originally under the `children overboard' inquiry back in 2002, he would have appeared. Indeed, his advice, provided to me by the Defence Legal Service at the time, was that he would have had no alternative other than to appear before the Senate if he had been subpoenaed. I would suggest that that would probably mean that certain other people, if they had been subpoenaed, would have given similar advice, and we would have also heard it from them. I think things would have been very different if we had heard from Mr Scrafton then, and people would have been required at the time to respond to whatever Mr Scrafton put forward. The extra information coming out in the context of that inquiry back in 2002 would, I think, have clearly led to further information coming out, and it would have been much more difficult for other people to resist appearing before the inquiry. Mr Reith is a special case—I would not have been surprised if he had fought it all the way to the High Court. I am not necessarily suggesting that the Senate should do that, but I think it was a grave mistake on the part of the original committee not to subpoena Mr Scrafton and the other ministerial staffers to appear.

Senator Brandis —Whose fault was that, Andrew?

Senator BARTLETT —As Senator Brandis encourages me to remind the Senate, that was because of the Labor members of the committee not supporting my motion within the committee to move for subpoenas to be issued. I have said that the government members stood back, vacated and allowed the Labor members to decide whether or not—

Senator BARTLETT —Yes, you stood back, you abstained and you allowed the Labor members to decide whether or not to step up to the plate. Labor members did not step up to the plate, so I was left at the plate on my own and the subpoenas did not happen. The real tragedy is that that did not happen, because—as we have seen from Mr Scrafton himself—he would have appeared. It would have been far better, I think, for all sides in this debate—and for Mr Scrafton himself, in hindsight—if that had happened and if he had appeared and made his statements at that time and answered flow-on questions that would undoubtedly have arisen. That did not happen and I hope it will be a lesson to future Senate committees. I am not saying we should subpoena everybody and anybody, by any means, but when it is sufficiently serious—as I believe this was—and when there is sufficient deliberate obstruction by the government then it should be pursued. So I hope one legacy of this is that Senate committees in future will be willing to push the envelope a bit further in trying to uncover government obstructionism and trying to uncover the truth from all sides.

I think another legacy of this, part of which Mr Scrafton has to be given credit for, is that future governments will find it harder to hide behind a smokescreen of ministerial staff and the Public Service. I do not say they will not keep trying to do it—I am sure they will find ways to do it—but they will find it harder to do a direct repeat of this sort of instance. So that is a real and positive outcome from these inquiries. People can argue backwards and forwards about the politics, but I think there has been a clear step forward. Indeed, another Senate committee—the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee—has also done an inquiry and made some recommendations into this area. So those people, particularly Mr Scrafton on showing his courage, should be congratulated.

The bottom line is that the refugees have never had their side of the story told. Many of them are now in Australia on temporary protection visas and they still have uncertainty because they do not know whether or not they will end up being forced back to Iraq in the future. There are still, three years later, 14 people imprisoned on Nauru. That is a disgrace. Whatever you might think about the Prime Minister's honesty, the fact that he is willing to allow people who sought freedom by escaping from Nauru—

Senator Ferguson —There are no refugees!

Senator BARTLETT —Probably some of them are refugees, because the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs just last week reassessed some of them and found a bunch of Iraqis—27 of them—are indeed refugees, and they will come here. Why have they been locked up for three years on Nauru before they finally get to come here? That is the real outrage, and that is the peak issue. (Time expired)