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Zahra (6), Fatima (7) and Eman (9) - the daughters of Sondos Ismail and Ahmed Alzalimi -  three of the 146 children who lost their lives when the vessel that has become known as SIEVX foundered in international waters en route to Christmas Island on 19 October 2001.
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MEDIA

GOVERNMENT
Faulkner & Collins Bat On

29 May 2003

Senators Faulkner and Collins teamed up again very effectively in Senate Estimates on Tuesday night to question Commissioner Keelty and his minister, Senator Ellison, regarding a range of SIEVX related questions. There were sustained efforts, variously by the chair (Senator Marise Payne, Liberal) and by Senator Ellison, to discourage and limit the scope of questioning to Keelty on the by now familiar grounds that these were 'operational' matters, or that they had been dealt with by the CMI Committee, or that answers could prejudice possible forthcoming people-smuggling prosecutions.

We are very heartened by the determination with which both opposition senators surmounted obstacles and pursued their intended lines of SIEVX-related questioning.

The vigorous tenor of this session is best illustrated by this exchange between the Chair, Marise Payne, Ellison and Faulkner:

CHAIR-I am indicating, Senator Faulkner, that I am not prepared to see any further questions put to the commissioner in that manner.

Senator FAULKNER-Well, I will ask the questions I want to ask, Chair. I am really not very interested in your view of them. They will be absolutely in order.

CHAIR-I don't care, Senator Faulkner, whether you are interested in my view of them or not.

Senator FAULKNER-I do not require, nor I would have thought any reasonable person-either a senator in this place or any observer of the parliamentary process in this country-would expect any senator to in any way modify important questions on the basis of some prejudice that the chair might happen to hold. I will ask the questions I want to ask in the way I want to ask them. I would like to do it quickly. I thought I would have been out of this committee room by now, but the more you and the minister interrupt the longer it will take.

CHAIR-You can reflect on the chair as much as you wish, Senator Faulkner. Putting yourself in the position of a reasonable person is an unusual position for you to choose, I would have thought. But I am indicating that I will not be allowing the commissioner to answer any questions put to him in the format that you have just adopted this evening.

Senator FAULKNER-I will put the questions I wish to put to the commissioner.

CHAIR-And I will rule them out of order if you ask them in the same manner.

Senator FAULKNER-Let's see what happens if you rule them out of order. I look forward to that.

Senator Ellison-So do I.

Senator FAULKNER-If I were you, I would think very carefully before I took that course of action.

CHAIR-If I were you, Senator Faulkner, I would stop providing gratuitous advice to the chair.

Senator FAULKNER-A more experienced senator than you would think very carefully about taking that course of action.

CHAIR-Patronising behaviour and intimidation may work in other committees, Senator Faulkner, but not in this one.

Senator FAULKNER-Thank you. Do I now have the call to ask the questions I wish to ask?

CHAIR-No. You have the call to ask questions that are in order.

In spite of Ellison's refusal to allow Keelty to answer or even to take on notice many important questions, Faulkner and Collins managed to elicit some important information and to get some questions taken on notice by the Commissioner:

  • Federal Agent Leigh Dixon, who blew the whistle to Marr & Wilkinson regarding the infamous alleged piracy remarks by Minister Ruddock at the Jakarta Embassy in June 2001 will shortly be leaving the AFP to take up other employment

  • The DIMIA/AFP Joint Strike Team based in Canberra is still operational and has been currently working on the briefs of evidence in regard to Abu Quassey and Khaled Daoed.

  • A copy of the MOU and the protocol with the INP in relation to people smuggling has yet to be provided to the Committee despite being requested on notice more than a year ago.

  • Faulkner continued to pursue the issue of tracking devices being placed on SIEVs despite Ellison claiming 'public interest immunity' on most of the questions. Interestingly he did not make specific reference to p.41 of Dark Victory where the authors claim that 'at AFP direction, the Indonesians attached tracking devices to many of the boats before they set out for Australia' - though he did ask a question about this matter, which Ellison said would not be replied to. At one point Faulkner passed a copy of Dark Victory to Keelty (offered on loan till the next round of AFP Estimates!) as he questioned him about information that the Commissioner had provided to the authors.

  • The AFP have now interviewed 26 SIEVX survivors. Last time they were asked about this (in November Estimates) they claimed to have interviewed only 6 survivors in Australia. And back in August last year they had only interviewed 5 survivors in total. It appears that the public campaign to bring Abu Quassey to trial in Australia for his part in the SIEVX tragedy has caused the AFP to considerably step up the pace and scope of their investigations. Most of these 26 must be outside Australia, as we only know of seven survivors living here.

  • Faulkner asked Keelty about the photos that were reportedly shown to survivors in Bogor after the sinking of SIEVX before it set sail. This question was vigorously objected to by Ellison.

  • The Federal agent who interviewed an unnamed survivor in Bogor on the evening of 22 October 2001 was Glen McEwen. Keelty said that this interview had been conducted by a phone using an IOM employee as an interpreter.

  • Senator Collins continued to question Keelty about his less than 'fulsome' previous responses to questions about radio communications on SIEVX. Ellison referred to this as Collins 'grasping at straws' to show that the AFP had not mentioned the DFAT cable in the CMI Committee.

  • Keelty claimed that the AFP had no prior knowledge of Quassey's departure for Egypt in April and so were unable to pursue him at that time.

  • Senator Collins indicated that she would be asking questions of Defence next week in regard to who provided the information to PM&C that was contained in what I have termed the Prime Ministerial 'butt-covering brief'.

  • Collins asked Keelty when the Indonesian fishermen who rescued the SIEVX survivors were questioned by AFP, and did they provide information on the rescue location.

  • A question about the radio distress message reported by IOM's spokesman Chauzy to ABC and CNN, is being taken on notice.

Overall impressions:
Persistence and confidence that they are onto something by Labor; extreme wariness and defensiveness by Ellison supported by Chair. We are getting down to nitty-gritty issues now.

See Bob Burton's article for a good analysis of this Committee hearing.

In other Estimates Committees this week:

Faulkner and Ray closely questioned PM&C as to which officers had seen the DFAT cable of 23 October 2001. This is a strong indication that Labor is not going to let this matter rest.

Collins questioned Ellison on Monday regarding the possible extradition of Khaleed Daoed and Abu Quassey.

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