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Thursday, 21 February 2002
Page: 751

Mr BEAZLEY (4:19 PM) —The Treasurer is a loyal fellow. He is out here staking his claims. The loyal party man doing the head-kicking and the boot-polishing for the Prime Minister. Let me just make a couple of points quite clear at the outset, as I made in the speech that I made the other day. I have absolutely no resentment about defeat in the election or the way we were defeated—none at all. Nobody in politics who wishes to serve and maintain their sense of personal stability takes things personally. Everybody in politics knows that you do the very best you can. There is a considerable amount of luck involved and, when you are in the opposition—and this is any opposition, Labor or Liberal—you do not call the shots. You have to fight very hard and more often than not in Australian historical terms you lose. Had this issue not occurred, we may or may not have won the last election. It is not predictable. A `stolen election' is an election where somebody makes off with the ballot boxes, and we have a Court of Disputed Returns to deal with those particular problems. Nobody is going to the Court of Disputed Returns about this particular election.

What we are dealing with here is what the opposition has been about in the Senate. I partly attended those Senate hearings yesterday in person and then watched some of them on TV and it is the most riveting parliamentary activity I have seen in a very long period of time. It was not the opposition trashing the defence department or the chain of command at those particular hearings, it was the Minister for Defence trashing the defence department. That is what was happening last night, as the Minister for Defence suddenly realised that the rug had been pulled out from under a key part of the government's defence of itself in this matter and closer and closer the attack was getting to the feet of the Prime Minister himself.

I do not need to be educated on the chain of command in the defence forces and, having listened to the Treasurer, all I have to say is: he does need to be. The chain of command in the defence forces stops with the person who acts in the position of commander of the defence forces at the time questions are asked of him.

What we need to understand here is that when the air marshal—that wise air marshal, who got himself a witness to the conversation—reported to the minister it was because that matter had become a subject of controversy to which the defence department would have to respond. It would have to provide the government with accurate information drawn from the opinions of those in the defence forces responsible for reporting up the chain about a set of events that had occurred. The minister would then be in a position to go and inform the public, and anyone else who needed to know, what the position of the defence department was.

It was not a case of the air marshal suddenly saying, `Gee, the Chief of the Defence Force is out. I haven't been agreeing with him for some considerable period of time. Here's my chance to get into it.' No, that is not what was happening. This was the man in the chief's position at that point in time being approached by the government to work out what their response should be to a set of stories about to appear in the newspapers— and which may even have appeared in the newspapers by then—to which they expected honest answers to be given. That is how all this came about. They expected honest answers because, with the defence department probably more than most, it sits in the code of honour of officers who have been trained and who believe you should tell the truth in public. It does not mean that you do not make mistakes. It does not mean that you do not bumble and bungle. But it does mean that your best information—security considerations aside—is made available to the public, but in particular is made available to the senior people in the chain of command, and who are they? The senior people in the chain of command are the Minister for Defence and the Prime Minister. All that the air marshal was doing that day was his duty; that is all that he was doing.

It is a very different time—and there is a very different atmosphere in this chamber now—compared to where we were in the middle of last week. In the middle of last week, the Prime Minister had one thing to say and one thing only: `I had a conversation with Reith that particular night and he advised me that nothing had changed.' That is what he said then. That is what his defence was then. Right through this campaign no other information was circulating. As this sorry tale has emerged from the Senate's consideration of it, it appears that there was an avalanche of written and verbal information passing through several departments of government, most of it ending up in ministers' offices—an avalanche of written and verbal information on these matters.

Why is it important that we should consider these matters now? Is it because we want to prove a point about the last election? Baloney! Irrelevant! What we are doing here is engaging in that principal task of oppositions—namely, accountability—so that better government can be achieved and the Australian people can have confidence that what is done inside the government of this country is done dispassionately and honestly.

In all of this, I feel genuinely sorry for Admiral Barrie. He is the chap who is caught in the vortex of what has become an extraordinary intimidatory practice now in the management of government in this country. We have public servants bullied to the point where they are afraid to tell the truth. We have public servants manipulated politically. Probably the Department of Defence is the last bastion because it is such a strong organisation, particularly in its military component, that it is extraordinarily difficult to reach down into it, at junior and mid-ranking levels at least, and impose your political will. It is a very difficult thing to do. What we have had here is a clash of two cultures: the intimidatory culture that has been imposed on the Public Service by this arrogant government, and the traditional defence culture of the independent, dispassionate defenders of the nation. They are coming slowly through this sad, sorry tale into collision and right at the vortex of that collision is Admiral Barrie.

In order to defend the Prime Minister, Admiral Barrie has to put himself now in an impossible position. And this is the position he is in: as he looks at the witness reports related to this, or not as the case may be— and I understand that, on some evidence he gave today, he had not read all the witness reports—but assuming he did—and I have to put a question mark over that—he has to say, `My view is that I stick with the original report that came in,' despite the fact that he has to acknowledge that absolutely everything else said since that point in time contradicts it.

The commander of the Adelaide and the sailors on board the Adelaide are outside an election context. Let me tell you what is going on there. What is going on there is a hard, tough operation which, in many ways, was accurately described by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and by the Treasurer. It is an operation where, in at least the first instances, there is a junior version of a fog of war. When you are getting telephone calls and it is a white-heat situation, there are people in the water, there is a boat to hand and it is the early hours of the morning, you are in a situation where you are going to get a varied report from the sailors who are engaged on an almost minute-by-minute basis. That is how this thing came through.

When the Prime Minister, the former Minister for Defence and others were talking about this early in the election campaign, when they said with such enormous certainty that women and children had been thrown overboard and all the rest of it, I assumed that what they were looking at was not a telephone call and then a document based on it, but something like this cable that we have been quoting from ever since. That is what I assumed. I thought the cable was the basis of a properly structured memo which went to the heart of government and told us actually what happened. But I was wrong—and we were all wrong up until the very end of the week of that campaign. I became aware that that was not the situation on 8 November when Shackleton blew the gaff on our opponents at that very late stage. In respect of Reith—and I do not believe it was the moment that he became aware of it, but we now know in evidentiary terms it was the moment he became aware of it—he at least and then the very highest levels of the government were aware of the fact that what they had told the electorate at the beginning of the campaign was not the truth.

Until that Monday the members of this government, severally and collectively, had the opportunity to say in a debate in this place that, whatever had gone on at that point in time, they had made an honest mistake. From that point on, the leadership of the government were in a position of deliberately misleading the Australian people—lying. I think that occurred much earlier, but from that point it certainly did. If we want evidence that it probably occurred much earlier that also came through in the Senate hearings last night from a very brave brigadier. I almost pity Al-Qaeda. We are putting into the field a fellow who will take apart Max Moore-Wilton; who will take apart the former defence minister of this country— Peter Reith—and who will take apart every wretched politician who wants to stand between him and his ability to put up the truth. I think they are going to find Osama bin Laden. He made the point—and this is the evidence of this vicious suppression that went on during the campaign—that the brigadier was obliged to step in to defend a junior female officer who was engaged in a contretemps with Ross Hampton of the minister's office when the junior officer was pointing out these things. The brigadier said:

The junior officer had tried to deal with him on two occasions to say to him that there was no evidence that we could find to corroborate such claims.

Children overboard; that is the claim—

After he had, as she said, `got quite angry' with her she decided that it was time to hand over the problem to me because I won't have my staff dealt with like that.

This was very early in the campaign—this was 11 October. It was not just about photographs; it was about all the statements. I pity the situation in which Admiral Barrie finds himself. I pity him even more in the way in which the Prime Minister is now dragging him down on top of himself as the last defence. You drag a body or somebody else down on top of yourself so that the enemy gets him and not you—a courageous Prime Minister! We have on our hands now a man who takes so readily responsibility for the whole of his government and he is finding one body after another to drag down on top of himself to defend himself in this particular case.

But the problem is that—and it is a problem for Admiral Barrie's position and it is a problem for John Howard position—it was not just that the photos were wrong; there were the witness statements. In the end there were videos, photos and witnesses statements from 15 sailors—14 of whom said, `No women and children in the water' and one of whom said, `Inconclusive on women and children in the water'. There were 15 witness statements, photographs and videos and a cable from the commander of the Adelaide—end of story.

That story was completely intact by 10 October and then it made its way through the bureaucracy. It found its way through to the Department of Foreign Affairs. By the 7th, by the 8th October, Defence was giving correct information to the Department of Foreign Affairs. So the Department of Foreign Affairs task force reports reflect the real situation. Then there were the various processes by which it was getting into the ministers' offices—mainly into the area of the Minister for Defence, but I find it impossible to believe not Foreign Affairs and Trade and Immigration as well and, also, of course, the Prime Minister's office.

We are at a way station in this debate. The House will probably not pass this censure—I think that we can be confident of the numbers in that regard. But there is a long way to go in this and the last carcass is down on top of the Prime Minister. It is the former defence minister's carcass that he has dragged down on top of himself. But there were other people talking to the Prime Minister at that point in time—officials of the Prime Minister's department who knew the truth; members of the office of the former Minister for Defence who knew the truth—and there were a lot of conversations. All that we have seen of the evidence so far is that this is a very mendacious government. That is the problem and that is why the censure motion should be passed. (Time expired)