Judge should inquire into drownings

Canberra Times
Monday, 17 June 2002

THE CASE for a wide-ranging inquiry into what Australian authorities knew and did about the SIEV-10 is now unanswerable. Evidence has emerged that the Prime Minister's people-smuggling task force knew a lot more at the time than it had been claiming. Heavily censored minutes of the task force given to a Senate committee last week appear to contradict evidence earlier given by bureaucratic witnesses that the task force was not aware of the boat. They also undermine statements made by the Prime Minister about where the boat was thought to have sunk, and raise questions about whether it had been the subject of any searches by the Australian intelligence and surveillance apparatus. By no means yet does the evidence demonstrate the unthinkable that Australian authorities stood by and allowed a grossly overloaded vessel to sink. But what is now known means that this possibility must now be seriously examined in an independent forum, as must an alternative, also very unpleasant: that gross negligence led to 353 drownings. At the very least there are lessons from the affair and little reason, from the complacency that key witnesses have shown, to be confident that these have been learnt and that no such thing could happen again.

The Senate committee investigating the children-overboard affair has done a good job in dragging from generally reluctant witnesses some of the facts. These have contradicted almost everything which was initially said about the disaster. The committee itself entered this part of its investigation gingerly, after a former Australian diplomat, Tony Kevin, raised plausible questions about what had happened. Like Mr Kevin, the committee was unwilling at first to think the unthinkable, but as fresh evidence has emerged, has been forced to contemplate it. No doubt it has been spurred on in part by the obstruction of the Government, the most recent manifestation of which has been its refusal to allow a senior naval officer to give evidence of his review of the intelligence on the matter. This hurdle can apparently be overcome. The Minister for Defence, Robert Hill, indicated yesterday that the evidence could be given if the Senate extended the committee's terms of reference. But this cannot be done until the Senate meets again in about two months. In fact, it is not apparent that the issues are beyond the committee's terms of reference, and why Senator Hill is seeking to buy time is not clear.

The Senate inquiry is also hamstrung by a lack of access to sensitive intelligence information, and, on the record so far in this inquiry, there can be no certainty that some of the material is being withheld only on national security grounds. Another curious aspect of the affair is that it is clear that many officials must be aware that the community is being misled. The task force, for example, contained representatives from a host of agencies involved in gathering intelligence about the movements of boat people, conducting surveillance, planning interceptions and aggressive deterrence, as well as the reception of those who got through the net. Given the minutes which have been tabled, they can hardly have failed to recognise that a formal statement that the task force had no knowledge of the boat was less than frank. At the least, they are compromised by their silence. That so many agencies are involved, and that statements by ministers and senior defence officers are in question, emphasises the need for an independent inquiry. It should be by a judge with unlimited rights to see security material, rather than an internal whitewash. The truth may be unpleasant for some, but, until it is known, it casts a slur not only on our border protection mechanisms, but on all Australians.

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