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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26677

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4:50 PM) —That was an extraordinary performance by Senator Hill.

Senator Abetz —You're one to talk! Don't talk about extraordinary performances in the Senate.

Senator BARTLETT —I am quite happy to talk about extraordinary performances in the Senate for as long as you would like, Minister. Perhaps you would like to elaborate on some of the facts surrounding a range of matters yourself while you are at it.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Watson)—Address your comments to the chair, please.

Senator BARTLETT —As Minister Hill's comments have demonstrated, outlining the facts is what this government is very keen to avoid. That is clearly the case on this issue, as on plenty of others—probably even on the matter that was alluded to previously. Minister Hill has made an extraordinary tangential and farcical argument that this is some abuse of the Senate. Let us put a few simple facts on the table. First, this extra information which has come out has only come out since the Senate last sat. This is the very first opportunity that the Senate has had to act on this matter. Secondly, it is a fact that the Senate and the House of Representatives could have quite legally and appropriately sat this week with the election day that the Prime Minister has chosen. He chose not to have the House of Representatives sit, even though it could have.

Senator Brandis —Why don't you say he chose to bring the Senate back?

Senator BARTLETT —The Senate, as the Prime Minister himself said—and I agree with the Prime Minister on this and I agree with Senator Brandis, who is of course always there defending Mr Howard; a renowned defender of Mr Howard and I am sure he will be on the committee keenly defending Mr Howard again, ensuring that his reputation is upheld wherever possible—

Senator Brandis —I am just trying to get at the facts and the truth, Senator Bartlett.

Senator BARTLETT —`The facts and the truth', as Senator Brandis says, are, as the Prime Minister himself said—and he was honest about this—that the government does not control the Senate, and it should not control the Senate, and the Democrats certainly hope the Australian people agree that the government should not control the Senate. That is a key choice for them on election day.

It is true that the Prime Minister chose that the House of Representatives not come back, even though quite clearly it could have sat all through this week, according to the Constitution and the law, and he could still have had the election on the day that he liked—but he chose to avoid the scrutiny. As he himself said, the government does not control the Senate—no party controls the Senate. For all Minister Hill's talk about this being a stacked committee and a Labor dominated committee, it is not, and his own words during his speech demonstrated that, because he said, `If this motion is passed, it will be passed by the Labor Party with the support of Independent groupings.' The Democrats are an independent grouping: I cannot speak for any other people on the crossbench, but I can certainly speak for the Democrats and the record shows we are an independent grouping. So there is no Labor dominated committee and the Democrats' record shows that we act independently on matters like this. Everybody knows the Democrats' view on refugee policy, but this is not about refugee policy; this is about honesty and trust.

The Prime Minister himself said, `This election is about trust.' How can it then be `inappropriate or irrelevant'—to use his words—to investigate and to provide the opportunity for more information to go on the public record as to what was said on the very eve of the last election about a major issue that affected the campaign and whether or not there was deliberate dishonesty? Surely, if the election is about trust, as the Prime Minister says, the public need to get as much information as they can to know if they can trust the Prime Minister. When he tells them something in his National Press Club address—as I am sure he will have in the last week of the election campaign—and asserts as strongly as possible that such and such is true, this time will people ask, `Can we trust him?' They should be able to make that judgment on as much evidence as possible. Frankly, this is not about the Senate committee reporting back the views of the members of the committee in any report or anything else. That is not what matters. What matters is that the public have as much information as possible for them to determine their views about an election that the Prime Minister himself has said is about trust.

To demonstrate this—and I remind the Senate of an example not just to do with the original Select Committee for an inquiry into a Certain Maritime Incident, colloquially known as the `children overboard' inquiry, although it actually looked at a much wider range of things—as the main non-major party—

Senator Brandis —According to popular culture, you emerged as the hero of it, Senator Bartlett.

Senator BARTLETT —I could not comment on that, but I am sure Senator Brandis is far more in tune with popular culture. The fact is that as the main independent voice on that committee—Senator Murphy was also a member of the committee and I hope he would not mind my saying that I was more heavily involved than he was—there were some extra comments of mine separate from the Labor members' comments in the report. I would also remind the Senate of the very contentious Senate inquiry that was set up into the so-called cash for visas issue. It was actually called the Select Committee on Ministerial Discretion in Migration Matters—another committee with a colloquial title, this one being `cash for visas'. I think it is fair to say that nobody in this chamber has been more critical than I have been of the former Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Mr Ruddock, about immigration matters, and extremely strong and very damaging allegations were made against Minister Ruddock and a Senate inquiry established, quite appropriately, to examine those allegations and to determine whether there was truth in them. We did everything we could to reveal the truth. There were failings by government and there were criticisms that I made about the government not cooperating as much as they could have, but I said, quite separately and independently of the Labor members, that I did not believe that the minister had been guilty of cash for visas or anything like it and that there was no evidence at all to back that up. I acknowledge that we could not get to some of the evidence that we should have got to, but there was nothing I saw at all that suggested that there was anything like so-called cash for visas. Obviously, given my strong criticism of Minister Ruddock, it would have been politically more wise for me to have come out and slammed him as being corrupt and as having totally abused the system in that way—I think it has been abused in plenty of other ways, as I have made clear—but I did not do that because I did not believe the evidence backed that up.

The Democrats are able to be independent. We have shown that on plenty of issues in this chamber and we have shown that on very contentious, very politicised issues that have been sent to Senate committees, even those about this sort of area. So it is not true to say it is a stacked committee and it is not true to say that it is Labor controlled—and certainly I will approach it from an independent perspective. As I have said, my view is that the main task of it will be to just get out into the public arena further information that was not able to be got out before and to have those pieces of information tested, including of course by government members, and questioned. If some of the government people in the background are quite happy to smear Mr Scrafton or say that it does not prove anything, here is a chance for them to test it face to face in public by asking the questions that should be asked—we can all ask those questions—rather than just have the farce of Mr Howard asking for some questions to be asked in private of Major General Powell and then his releasing some transcripts. Let us have it out in the public arena where we on all sides can ask the questions and the person can expand his evidence in the public arena under the protection of parliamentary privilege.

I am sure he did not really believe what he was saying, but despite all Senator Hill's farcical suggestions that this is an abuse of the Senate this is actually core business of the Senate. That is why I believe it is an important matter. It is not something such as was done by Senator Hill when he was in opposition where we would have the committee holding hearings and meetings all over the place during the campaign. I expect it to be a single hearing—probably a long hearing but a single day's hearing—and unless very significant information comes out that demands instant follow-up I suspect, without pre-empting the hearing completely, that that would do it. I cannot completely pre-empt it, of course, but that is certainly the way I am leaning at the moment.

It will provide an opportunity for everybody. If Senator Brandis is chosen to be on the committee again—and I think it is beneficial to have people on this committee who were part of the original one—he can continue to build on his reputation as the great defender of Mr Howard and his integrity. Other Liberal members of the committee can do the same. They can test the evidence. We will see who is put forward as chair, but while people can make their political points the record speaks for itself. The Democrats will take an independent approach on this. If I end up being selected as the member for that committee, that is certainly what I will do.

It does need to be mentioned, too, that we should look more widely at what that committee achieved. There was the specific issue about whether or not there was deliberate deceit and how wide that deliberate deceit was during the last election campaign. The committee was able to go only so far. I would point out that, in his letter to the Australian when Mr Scrafton produced further material on the public record about what happened according to him, he specifically stated that one of the reasons he did not respond positively to the invitation by the Senate committee to appear was that he was not issued with a subpoena. He was directed by the government or by ministers not to appear, as has happened in the past.

It is quite understandable that staff or other public servants in that position feel that they should not appear, if that is how they are directed, unless there is the extra weight of the subpoena. I acknowledge that puts them in a more difficult position, but if the matter is serious enough, as this was, then I believe that is what should be considered. Mr Reith should have been first in the queue—I do not think there is any doubt about that—but if we were to go further, believing we needed to get further to the truth, then as is clearly on the public record at the time I believed we should have subpoenaed other witnesses and at least tested it that step further to see what happened. But, of course, I was not able to get support when I stepped up to the plate and so that did not happen. I accept the reasons that Senator Faulkner put forward for that—I think they were genuine—

Senator BARTLETT —I think it is worth noting Mr Scrafton's comment in that letter for future reference when these sorts of questions arise again. I do not expect they will arise before the election. Normally you would invite someone to appear. I expect Mr Scrafton would wish to appear—I do not know; I have not spoken to him—and it is only if people do not accept an invitation that you consider whether it is sufficiently important for more coercive measures to be considered. That is very unlikely to happen. I cannot foresee the circumstances at the moment where that would be likely to happen prior to the election. One can never be categorical about these things, but again that is where I see things.

We are not talking about dragging people before the committee against their will in an election campaign. We are not talking about having committee hearings all around the place and having a political witch-hunt. We are talking about doing what is Senate core business: providing the opportunity for the truth to be revealed more fully and for the information to get on the public record, under parliamentary privilege, from someone who was previously directed not to appear and who has now chosen to become public on the matter, and providing the opportunity for that to be done in public and for people from all sides who wish to ask questions to be able to do so. That is what is being done. To call that an abuse of process is, frankly, laughable. And to talk about it being at public expense! I bet London to a brick that the public expense of all those members of the House of Representatives who jumped on planes to come to Canberra and then had to turn around and fly back again—

Senator Ferguson —They did not get on the planes; they were all notified earlier.

Senator BARTLETT —I got on a plane with one of them. Maybe he was just out of the loop; he is not as close to the throne as you are, Senator Ferguson.

Senator Brandis —He was probably coming down for cabinet.

Senator BARTLETT —No, he was not a cabinet minister. It is all right; it does not matter. The cost of having a single hearing is extremely small, and to try to grasp at the public expense straw shows how desperate Minister Hill was to try to find a reason about this. Finally, on a slightly broader scope, as I said at the start, the original certain maritime incident inquiry was about a lot more than just the `children overboard' incident. A lot of the other material that got into the public arena has been incredibly useful in enabling a more informed debate about the reality of the refugee policy in a whole range of areas. There are of course still unfinished areas, unfinished business and unanswered questions.

I would like to note, with pleasure, that in a number of newspapers as well as on the Channel 9 Sunday program we actually heard from the refugees themselves—the people who were accused, repeatedly, of throwing their children overboard and deliberately putting their children at risk of drowning as a form of blackmail. These are the people in relation to whom it was directly said by Mr Howard, Minister Downer and, I think, Minister Ruddock: `We don't want people like that in this country. We don't want them here. We won't let them here.' Of course, many of them are now here, so that bit was not true either.

But the simple fact is that we have never heard from those people themselves. We have never had an apology for the false accusation. When Mr Howard was asked, `Do you owe the people on that boat an apology for saying they threw their kids overboard?' he said, `No, I'm not apologising for having stated things that I believed to be true.' I think that when you do say something that people take offence to, even if you believed it to be true at the time and you find out that you are wrong, most people do apologise. Certainly when you are the leader of a nation who has defamed a whole group of people and you are found out you are wrong, sure you might say, `I'm only saying what someone else told me,' but you still apologise—you apologise when you cause offence, even if you think there is some substance behind your comment a lot of the time.

The facts are that there has never been an apology to these people and they have never had the opportunity to have a say themselves. We did examine the prospect of enabling them to give evidence before the Senate committee inquiry. At that time, of course, they were all locked up on Manus Island outside the jurisdiction of the Australian parliament—another very clever move by Mr Howard to avoid scrutiny and prevent people from accessing justice. They were unable to appear at that time, and the committee decided that it was not really workable to try to get evidence from people in a detention centre in Papua New Guinea. The fact now is that many of them are in Australia, despite what government ministers said at the time, and it is good to see them finally getting a voice. But that is all they are getting. There has been no acknowledgment one way or the other about the veracity of what has been said, but we are at least hearing from them and acknowledging them as human beings and as the people who have been defamed in this.

I note that the Democrats were the first to question the veracity of the `children overboard' claim. Our former leader, and my predecessor, Senator Stott Despoja immediately publicly questioned what the evidence was. It was unfortunate—and, frankly, hard to comprehend—that, although many people in Defence recognised within two days that things were not as had been said, somehow that did not get through. There are plenty of things to learn from that, in a whole range of ways.

Now there is more information that could be put in the public arena. There would be benefits in doing so, and establishing this committee would be an effective way of doing so. It is obviously a contentious and politicised issue, but the record shows, certainly from the Democrats' perspective, that we are able to approach it as independently as possible. My main goal in supporting this motion, and in being part of the committee if it ends up happening, is simply to allow the information to get on the record, to hear from Mr Scrafton and perhaps one or two other people and to provide the opportunity to test some of their views, ask questions and explore those matters. Then that would be on the record for the public, the voters, to be more informed on polling day when they make their choices of who should be Prime Minister—a question of trust—and who should be in the Senate for the times, which inevitably arise whoever they pick as Prime Minister, when they find out that they cannot be trusted.