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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5754

Senator BRANDIS (4:49 PM) —Before I address the issues which Senator Cook has addressed concerning the SIEV4 episode, it is very important that those who hear the broadcast today realise that in relation to SIEVX, which Senator Cook touched on at the end of his speech, there is no significant difference between government and opposition senators—I cannot speak for Senator Bartlett. Those who heard Senator Cook's remarks a few moments ago may have thought that the government and the opposition were of a different view on SIEVX. That is not so. SIEVX is dealt with in chapters 8 and 9 of the report. The government senators address it in paragraph 13 of the first chapter of our report. We say:

In regard to SIEVX, Government Senators support the general conclusions and findings in Chapters 8 and 9. In particular we agree with the finding in paragraph 9.142, which states “On the basis of the above, the Committee cannot find grounds for believing that negligence or dereliction of duty was committed in relation to SIEV X.”

That is all I propose to say about that. The government senators' report appears between page 477 and the conclusion of the volume. When I speak of `the report' I speak of the majority report. The government senators' report critiques the majority report. Paragraph 4 of the first chapter of the government senators' report says that the majority report is a document which is corrupted by intellectual dishonesty—

Senator Cook —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The point of order goes to the one I raised earlier. These are exactly the terms I rejected. We never saw this report before it was tabled, as promised. This is unparliamentary language and you should rule it out of order. It is a liberty.

Senator Ferguson —You did. Yours wasn't finished when it was adopted. Your report wasn't even finished.

Senator Cook —That's a lie and you're a liar!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)—Senator Cook, that is unparliamentary. You will withdraw those remarks.

Senator Cook —I withdraw my remarks.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Order! I would like some quiet, please, Senator Cook and Senator Kemp. Senator Brandis, you know as well as anyone in this chamber that you cannot use that sort of language if it is directed towards any of the honourable senators here. Insofar as it may not be, then I ask you to proceed.

Senator BRANDIS —Mr Acting Deputy President, I abide by your ruling, of course. I do not speak of any individual senators and I do not speak of senators corporately. I speak of a document—that is, a report. The report is a document corrupted by intellectual dishonesty. It is based on findings, or what are described as findings, which are unsupported by the evidence.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Brandis, resume your seat again.

Senator Cook —Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: the report that Senator Brandis refers to is a report signed by me and several other senators in this place. We are the authors of that report, and if there is an allegation of the character that the senator opposite knows is unfair and untrue—but it is also against standing orders— it is an allegation against us and he should be asked to withdraw it.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —There is no point of order because Senator Brandis, in my view, is not referring to individual senators. However, Senator Brandis, I ask you to continue but to desist from the ambiguity that is in this chamber this afternoon when you use such language like that.

Senator BRANDIS —I will be unambiguous, Mr Acting Deputy President. The majority of the report is based on findings, or what it is pleased to describe as findings, which are unsupported by evidence and, in particular, it makes loose and unsupported allegations of dishonesty against an individual, Mr Reith. It ignores vital evidence which explains the sequence in which events took place and then casts doubts on the motives of those involved which could not be cast if the evidence had not been ignored. It indulges in innuendo and allows doubts to linger in the air when none exist. It engages in conspiracy theories of the most Kafkaesque hue. It reflects upon the reputations of distinguished Australians, in particular the former Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, who at the time these events took place had one thing and only one thing on his mind and that was concern to protect the Australian people during the war against terror. Why? Because the entire `children overboard' inquiry was nothing more and nothing less than an orgy of self-pity and misplaced outrage engaged in by the Australian Labor Party because they lost the federal election. For 15 hearing days, through 56 witnesses, for 138 hours, the Australian Labor Party engaged in an orgy of self-justification. And to what end? To no end, because the evidence, unfortunately from the point of view of the Australian Labor Party, did not produce the conclusions that they were seeking.

I said at the start that the report was corrupted by intellectual dishonesty. There are two particular techniques that are used in the report about which I make that charge. The first of them is the use of open findings— language to the effect `the committee is unable to determine such and such a proposition'—where there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that there is even a question, thus leaving doubt lingering in the air. The innuendo to be found in open findings leaving doubt lingering in the air is dishonest and disgraceful. The second technique in which the majority report indulges is to arrive at what it is pleased to call `findings' of fact which are not findings at all—at least not findings having any bearing on the evidence; they are findings based on conjecture and surmise.

There are many people who are attacked in the majority report, but there are three in particular about whom I wish to speak. The first is the Prime Minister. The majority report alleges at paragraph 6.97:

The Committee is unable to conclude with any certainty whether the advice given to Minister Reith, which overturned the report of the incident itself—

and I interpolate that that itself is a misstatement; that is not what the evidence showed—

and the photographs as evidence of it, was communicated fully to the Prime Minister ...

At paragraph 6.101, it goes on to say:

The Committee is unable to determine whether on 7 November Mr Reith, in telephone conversations with him, informed the Prime Minister that there was no other evidence supporting the claim, and that he had been informed by the Acting CDF that the incident did not take place.

That is an example of that dishonest technique of open findings, thus leaving a question lingering in the air. But the fact is that there was no question in the first place. There was a telephone conversation on 7 November between Mr Howard and Mr Reith. Both of them are on the public record as to what was said during that telephone conversation and both offer the same evidence as to what was said during that telephone conversation. The innuendo left lingering in the air against the Prime Minister is utterly dishonest. There is not a scintilla of evidence, whether direct, hearsay, circumstantial or otherwise, which could support the proposition that there was any question at all involving the Prime Minister. That is an example of the dishonesty in which the majority report has so freely engaged.

Senator BRANDIS —It is Orwellian, Senator Mason; you are quite right. Let me turn to the outrageous treatment of Mr Reith in this report. In what the majority pleases to call `findings' at page xxiv of the report, this is what is said:

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.

The majority also purports to find:

Mr Reith engaged in the deliberate misleading of the Australian public concerning a matter of intense political interest during an election period. Mr Reith failed to provide timely and accurate advice to the Prime Minister concerning the matters associated with the `children overboard' controversy.

Then it goes on to find:

Mr Reith failed to cooperate with the Senate Select Committee established to inquire into the `children overboard' controversy, thereby undermining the accountability of the executive to the parliament.

Those are the findings. The first point to be made about those findings is that they are entirely unsupported by the evidence. There are more than 2,000 pages of Hansard transcript of this inquiry, and one will not find anything in them to support the finding of deliberate dishonesty by Mr Reith. I will turn in a moment to what the evidence does show. But it is a bit rich, it must be said, for the Australian Labor Party to attack Mr Reith for failing to cooperate with the Senate inquiry, because for months on end Senator Faulkner, Senator Cook and other Labor Party politicians demanded that Mr Reith appear. There was no reason why the Senate's subpoena powers could not have been used against Mr Reith. If they had wanted to put him on the spot, they could have done so, they could have subpoenaed him, but for week after week and month after month the Labor Party senators delayed.

Eventually, on 22 May—I have the minutes with me—not the Labor Party but Senator Andrew Bartlett from the Democrats moved that Mr Reith be subpoenaed and, when Senator Bartlett moved that motion, Senator Ferguson, Senator Mason and I told the Labor senators that we would not stand in their way. Mr Reith was their witness and they wanted to put him on the spot, so we told them we would not stand in their way and we would abstain from voting on Senator Bartlett's motion.

Mr Acting Deputy President, do you know what happened? I will tell you what happened. The Labor senators voted not to subpoena Mr Reith. They voted against the motion that they had, in the public arena, demanded. On the airwaves, on the TV channels and in this chamber they demanded that Mr Reith appear. When Senator Bartlett moved a motion on 22 May that he be called, Senator Faulkner, Senator Collins, Senator Cook and Senator Murphy raised their hands to defeat the motion. The minutes show: those in favour, 1; those against, 4; and abstentions, 3.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Order! Senator Mackay, you will come to order! Senator Collins, you will come to order!

Senator BRANDIS —Mr Reith's credibility has been attacked savagely in this report.

Senator Faulkner —He's a liar!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Order! Senator Faulkner, you will come to order!

Senator Ferguson —That's unparliamentary!

Senator Faulkner —It is not unparliamentary. He is not a member of parliament.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Order! You will come to order, Senator Faulkner. It is not unparliamentary for someone in this chamber to speak of a person outside this chamber in those terms. It is, however, unseemly and it brings no credit to this chamber.

Senator BRANDIS —The gravamen of the charge against Mr Reith is that he was in possession of information which falsified a public report that asylum seekers on the vessel SIEV4 had behaved badly. The gravamen of the charge is that he concealed that information to attempt to gain a political advantage for the government. What the majority report does not mention—there is not so much as a reference to it in 550-odd pages— is the fact that the committee heard a range of evidence from several witnesses that Mr Reith was in possession of knowledge of much more severe and significant and disgraceful behaviour by asylum seekers which never reached the public arena. If that was Mr Reith's motive, why was that information not made a matter of public record?

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 31 March 2002, the journalist Alan Ramsay wrote:

Like much of the media coverage, they were little interested in anything other than the one “certain maritime incident” on October 7. Yet imagine what Howard could have made of them during the election campaign had he known the detail of those six other boardings? The navy never told the Government. The October 7 disclosure was a communications cock-up. Just like [almost] everything else about this futile political pursuit.

Mr Acting Deputy President, that is what a journalist observed after two days of hearings. But do you know what? He was wrong, because the government did know. The government did know about the behaviour of asylum seekers on all of the other nine SIEV boats that were intercepted before the 10 November election—SIEV1 through to SIEV10. Admiral Barrie told Senator Mason in his evidence when this proposition was put to him—and this evidence is quoted in the minority report:

I think the minister was in possession of the knowledge. Certainly on a few occasions I can attest to that personally.

Ms Halton, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, gave evidence to the same effect; so did Rear Admiral Ritchie, so did Brigadier Silverstone, so did Rear Admiral Smith, so did the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Shackleton, and so did Air Vice Marshal Titheridge.

So if that is the Labor Party case against Mr Reith, that he forbore from interfering to correct to the public record in order to maintain a political advantage for the government, the case falls at the first hurdle. He was in possession, he had been told by his military officers, of other information of a much more prejudicial character and not a word of it came into the public arena.

The third piece of evidence in relation to Mr Reith's conduct is the question of what has been called `the video', a video taken from the bridge of the Adelaide that showed asylum seekers on the bridge of SIEV4 but did not show any children being thrown overboard. That video evidence is both spatially and temporally limited. It is limited to a part of the incident and it is limited to one side of the ship. But, nevertheless, as far as it goes, that video did not support the view that the government had expressed publicly. Mr Reith was told of that on 7 November by Air Marshal Houston. Mr Reith rang the Prime Minister and mentioned the video to him. What was the reaction of Mr Reith when he was told there was a piece of evidence that did not assist the government's case? If Mr Reith were motivated by the malign conduct alleged against him by Labor senators, he would have suppressed it—of course he would have. What did he do about this piece of unhelpful evidence that told against his own case? He ordered that it be released immediately. Air Marshal Houston's evidence was that, when he told Mr Reith about the video, Mr Reith said, `Well, we'd better release it then.' It did not help the government's position, yet the immediate reaction was to put it out there into the public arena.

This has been an argument, essentially, about a sequence of events. It has been politicised by the Labor Party and all sorts of extravagant innuendoes have been made, but it has been an argument about a sequence of events. Let me quickly summarise them, because this is what the evidence in truth shows. You did not hear Senator Cook talk about the evidence and you will not hear Senator Faulkner do so either, and Senator Collins would not be able to understand it if she tried. The evidence shows in the first place that there was a report to the joint task force commander from the bridge of the Adelaide that a child or children were thrown overboard. The evidence shows that three days later, on 10 October, the Commander, Australian Theatre, Rear Admiral Ritchie, who in the command structure was the officer immediately below the Chief of the Defence Force, told Mr Scrafton from Mr Reith's office at 12.42 that he still believed the accuracy of that report. He still believed it to be true; that is the evidence.

The evidence is that doubts were growing in the mind of Admiral Ritchie and others and that at 10 o'clock on the morning of 11 October Admiral Ritchie had a conversation with the Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Barrie. He told him that there were doubts about the accuracy of the report. Admiral Barrie said to Admiral Ritchie, and I will paraphrase his words, `I am not sufficiently persuaded by what you have told me to change my initial reliance on the report of the commanding officer.' All of this evidence is set out chapter and verse in the government senators' report. Admiral Barrie went away from that conversation, as he put it, `inviting Admiral Ritchie to fight a repechage'. He said to him, `If you have any further evidence to put before me, you should come to me and give it to me, but until you do I am not sufficiently persuaded to abandon the view of Commander Banks, the commanding officer.'

That was at 10 a.m. on 11 October. Three-and-a-quarter hours later a signal came in, received by Admiral Ritchie, which was the evidence that Admiral Barrie had asked for. That was never brought to Admiral Barrie's attention. Admiral Barrie briefed Mr Reith on 17 October and he told him two things: `Minister, there are doubts among the chain of command about the accuracy of this report; however, my advice to you as your chief defence adviser is that there is not sufficient evidence available to persuade me that the original report was wrong and I adhere to it.' It is as simple as that. That was the advice to Minister Reith from the Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Barrie: that although doubts had been expressed along the chain of command he, Admiral Barrie, was not persuaded that the first report was wrong and his professional advice to his minister was that the report should be supported. When you get into the evidence it tells a different story from the rhetoric we have heard from the Australian Labor Party. The case is closed.