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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26669

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (4:12 PM) —I move the motion circulated in the chamber as amended in relation to the reporting date:

(1) That a select committee, to be known as the Select Committee on the Scrafton Evidence, be appointed to inquire into and report by 24 November 2004, on matters arising from the public statements made by former ministerial staffer, Mr Mike Scrafton, about the conversations he had with the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, about the `children overboard' affair on 7 November 2001 and the implications of these statements for the findings of the Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident.

(2) That the committee consist of 5 senators, 2 nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, 2 nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and 1 nominated by minority groups and independent senators.

(3) That the committee may proceed to the dispatch of business notwithstanding that not all members have been duly nominated and appointed and notwithstanding any vacancy.

(4) That the chair of the committee be elected by the committee from the members nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

(5) That the deputy chair of the committee be elected by the committee from the members nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

(6) That the deputy chair act as chair when there is no chair or the chair is not present at a meeting.

(7) That, in the event of the votes on any question before the committee being equally divided, the chair, or deputy chair when acting as chair, have a casting vote.

(8) That the quorum of the committee be a majority of the members of the committee.

(9) That the committee and any subcommittee have power to send for and examine persons and documents, to move from place to place, to sit in public or in private, notwithstanding any prorogation of the Parliament or dissolution of the House of Representatives, and have leave to report from time to time its proceedings and the evidence taken, and such interim recommendations as it may deem fit.

(10) That the committee have access to the evidence and documents of the Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident, established by the Senate on 13 February 2002.

(11) That the committee have power to appoint subcommittees consisting of 3 or more of its members and to refer to any such subcommittee any of the matters which the committee is empowered to consider.

(12) That the quorum of a subcommittee be a majority of the members appointed to the subcommittee.

(13) 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.

(14) That the committee be empowered to print from day to day such documents and evidence as may be ordered by it, and a daily Hansard be published of such proceedings as take place in public.

This afternoon we find ourselves in the bizarre and unprecedented circumstance of a Senate sitting with the House of Representatives dissolved and an election campaign in full swing. This morning Mr Howard said publicly that he hit upon this highly unusual and unprecedented tactic in order to avoid the accusation that he was trying to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. But I ask this question: if that is the case, why has he dissolved the House of Representatives? And why has the government proposed—certainly Senator Hill did to me yesterday—that the Senate decide not to sit on these two days? It really does not make a great deal of sense. If the House had sat on these two days, before the prorogation of the parliament, Mr Howard would have had to face two question times. He would have had to answer directly questions about his misrepresentation of the `children overboard' incident at the most sensitive time of the political cycle during the last election campaign. He would have had to defend his version of his conversations with Mr Scrafton in the dying days of that campaign. More importantly, he would have had to explain his continuing refusal to be frank and truthful with the Australian people. He would have had to be held to account for what the Liberal Party president of yesteryear, Mr Shane Stone, described three years ago as his meanness and trickiness.

Senator FAULKNER —It is all right for Senator Brandis to roll his eyes about Mr Stone; apparently he is just another enemy of Senator Brandis.

It is quite clear that Mr Howard chose to dissolve the House to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. He did not want to be held to account. He chose to cut and run. As for the Senate, as I have said before, you really have to wonder whether the Prime Minister actually thought through the sitting of the Senate, because he seems to be in two minds about this: on the one hand he said that he allowed the Senate to sit in order to avoid the charge that he was trying to evade scrutiny; on the other hand his leader in the Senate was proceeding on the assumption that the government and the opposition could simply agree not to sit and petition the Senate President accordingly. We know that that is not the case. The Senate had determined that it would resume its sittings today, and in the absence of a prorogation those sittings must proceed. There is no provision in the standing orders for a majority of senators to cancel a scheduled sitting of the Senate. We have the circumstance where the Senate did not have any option but to sit.

We also had the circumstance of a dithering Prime Minister taking so long to make up his mind about when to have the election that by the time he made his announcement at one o'clock yesterday afternoon most senators and a good number of members of the House of Representatives were already in Canberra or in planes on their way to Canberra. Heaven knows what that cost the taxpayers' purse; we will find out in due course. But we say that, given that we are here, we will give the taxpayers of Australia their money's worth. We will do what the Senate is charged to do, and that is to hold the government to account.

Senators will recall, I am sure, the inquiry conducted by the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident into the shameful so-called children overboard affair in October and November of 2001. That inquiry was established in February 2002 and it reported in October of that same year and made a number of very important findings. This afternoon I want to remind the Senate of some of those findings of fact in the report of the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident. Let us have a look at them:

No children were thrown overboard from SIEV 4.

... ... ...

Photographs released to the media on 10 October as evidence of children thrown overboard on 7 October were actually pictures taken the following day, 8 October, while SIEV 4 was sinking.

By 11 October 2001, the naval chain of command had concluded that no children had been thrown overboard from SIEV 4. The Chief of Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, was informed at the very least that there were serious doubts attaching to the report.

On 11 October 2001, Minister Reith and his staff were separately informed that the photographs were not of the alleged children overboard events of 7 October, but were of the foundering of SIEV 4 on 8 October.

On or about 17 October 2001, Admiral Barrie informed Minister Reith that there were serious doubts about the veracity of the report that children had been thrown overboard from SIEV 4.

On 7 November 2001, the then Acting Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Angus Houston, informed Minister Reith that children had not been thrown overboard from SIEV 4.

On four other occasions the lack of or dubious nature of evidence for the `children overboard' report were drawn to the attention of the Minister or his staff by officers from Defence.

... ... ...

On 7 November 2001, Minister Reith informed the Prime Minister that, at the least, there were doubts about whether the photographs represented the alleged children overboard incident or whether they represented events connected with SIEV 4's sinking.

Despite direct media questioning on the issue, no correction, retraction or communication about the existence of doubts in connection with either the alleged incident itself or the photographs as evidence for it was made by any member of the Federal Government before the election on 10 November 2001.

Minister Reith made a number of misleading statements, implying that the published photographs and a video supported the original report that children had been thrown overboard well after he had received definitive advice to the contrary.

The Committee finds that Mr Reith deceived the Australian people during the 2001 Federal Election campaign concerning the state of the evidence for the claim that children had been thrown overboard from SIEV 4.

It is not possible to make a finding on what the Prime Minister or other Ministers had communicated to them about this incident due to the limitations placed on this inquiry by the order of the Cabinet for ministerial staff not to give evidence.

That last finding is very important, and I want to focus on it. The committee was unable to complete its work because of the government's refusal to allow key witnesses to give evidence. One of those key witnesses has now come forward. Mr Mike Scrafton, freed of the constraints imposed on him by the government, has come forward to tell his side of the story. Two weeks ago, on 16 August, Mr Scrafton, who had been Mr Reith's defence adviser at the time of the children overboard affair, revealed that he told the Prime Minister on 7 November 2001, the day before the Prime Minister appeared at the Press Club, that the video of the incident was inconclusive, that the photographs released in early October were definitely of the sinking of the vessel the day after the incident, that no-one he had dealt with in Defence on the matter still believed children had been thrown overboard and that he had the impression that the ONA report which confirmed that children had been thrown overboard was based on the public statements of the then minister for immigration, Mr Ruddock.

Mr Howard denies Mr Scrafton's version of events and has questioned Mr Scrafton's integrity. Yet Mr Scrafton's account has been backed by Jenny McKenry, the then head of the Department of Defence public affairs and corporate communications area, whom he spoke to the next day about his conversation with Mr Howard. It has been further corroborated by Major General Powell, who conducted the parallel military inquiry into the incident, and his assistant in that inquiry, Commander Noonan. These two officers had interviewed Mr Scrafton in December 2001 and recalled that he had given them similar accounts of his conversations with the Prime Minister. Clearly, Mr Scrafton's statements are directly relevant to the work of the previous Senate inquiry and may well provide the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Mr Howard and his minions—like Senator Hill—will no doubt accuse the Senate of conducting a witch-hunt.

Senator Hill —Correct.

Senator FAULKNER —Of course you will. You will accuse the Senate of seeking to refight the lost battle of the last election and of being obsessed with the past. But there is nothing at all unusual in the Senate taking advantage of these brief sittings, which the Prime Minister has deliberately organised, to seek to conclude important, unfinished business. Mr Howard said that the Senate should sit to deal with this matter. Mr Howard said that the Senate should sit and do their darnedest. This is core business for the Senate. We are here to hold the government to account. We have conducted one inquiry into this affair. It was a very comprehensive and very effective inquiry, but it was thwarted in its attempt to get to the bottom of these issues.

Now one of the witnesses—or non-witnesses—Mr Scrafton, has made public statements that might enable us to complete the unfinished business of that earlier inquiry. Furthermore, Mr Scrafton has indicated his willingness to give evidence on the record. Clearly, we ought to be giving him that opportunity. There are others, such as Ms McKenry, Major General Powell and Commander Noonan, who also may be able to assist the Senate to assess Mr Scrafton's evidence. If the Senate agrees to establish an inquiry it is the opposition's intention to conduct hearings as quickly as possible. We do not anticipate that more than one day of hearings would be necessary. We are very conscious of the fact—and all senators should be conscious of the fact—that we are in an election campaign, even if the Senate is sitting. Quite frankly, most senators and most parliamentarians have other priorities. I admit that I have other priorities: to ensure, if I can, a Labor victory in this election. I am sure every senator will be strongly campaigning in their or their party's interests in the election.

A lot has been said, even in interjections in the chamber today, about the subpoenaing of witnesses. I want to make it very clear that the opposition will not be seeking to subpoena ministerial staff during an election campaign. We believe that that issue is best left until after the election. Mr Howard has staff working for him in this election campaign and we have to assess whether is reasonable for ministerial staff—in this case, prime ministerial staff—to be subpoenaed during an election campaign. I certainly accept that staff have other priorities during a campaign and I accept that parliamentarians—in government, in opposition or on the cross-benches—are entitled to expect full-time dedication from their staff at such a critical stage of the electoral cycle. Contrary to what has been said in this chamber today, I do not anticipate the committee handing down a report this side of the election. Originally there was a reporting date of 7 October.

Senator Hill —That is the date I was given.

Senator FAULKNER —It may have been the date you were given. That was a date that was set, Senator Hill, before Mr Howard announced the election.

Senator Hill —We got it this morning. When did you change your mind?

Senator FAULKNER —That just goes to show how behind the play you are. I thought that in question time today, frankly, you ought to have had a long drink of water, a Bex and a good lie down, Senator Hill, because you seemed to have been totally out of control. The original proposed reporting date was set before the election was called, and the motion before the chamber today proposes that the committee report on 24 November. Senator Hill was critical of us in question time again today—an abusive question time—for setting up a Senate committee inquiry to proceed during an election campaign. We all heard that extraordinary outburst. But Senator Hill must surely know there is nothing at all extraordinary about Senate committees continuing their work into an election campaign, and there are any number of precedents. Indeed, I am surprised Senator Hill does not recall the Select Committee on the Functions, Powers and Operation of the Australian Loan Council, which pursued its witch-hunt throughout the 1993 election campaign. I had the misfortune to serve on that Senate select committee. At the time all that was going on, Senator Hill was the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. But I can assure Senator Hill, I can assure all senators and I can assure the Senate that we are not seeking to emulate that sort of performance—Senator Hill's performance on that occasion. Our main purpose in seeking to establish this committee is to examine, under oath, the statements made by Mr Scrafton and their implications for the findings of the earlier inquiry into the `children overboard' affair. We are seeking to discharge our accountability obligations to get to the bottom of what has been undoubtedly one of the most shameful episodes in Australian politics. I believe this is the way forward; this is the way to do that. I commend this motion to the Senate.