DOORSTOP - SENATOR JOHN FAULKNER
23 October 2002
Subject: Tabling of the Report of the Select Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident
FAULKNER:The Senate Select Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident, better known of course as the Children Overboard Committee, has just tabled in the Senate its report into this notorious event that took place during the last election campaign.
The Committee has established on no less than 13 occasions that the Prime Minister, his Department or his office were informed that children had not been thrown overboard or that photographs purporting to represent that event were false.
The Committee has also found that on no less than 14 occasions the Minister for Defence at the time; Mr Peter Reith, or his office had been informed that children had not been thrown overboard from SIEV4 or that the photographs of people in the water represented that event.
I believe what has been exposed in this incident is and extraordinary story of deceit and I think the Ministers responsible and the Government stand condemned for not correcting the public record when they had the opportunity right through the most sensitive period in our electoral cycle; right through the period of the last election campaign.
QUESTION: Is there any smoking gun evidence the Prime Minister was told the claims were wrong?
FAULKNER: I think you can see that on literally 13 occasions the Prime Minister's office, the Prime Minister's Department or the Prime Minister were told that children had not been thrown overboard or that the photographs which purported to represent children who had been thrown overboard in the water were false. That, of course, was a misrepresentation that has been exposed by Labor Senators on the Committee.
You have to ask the Prime Minister why during the election campaign the record wasn't corrected as late as at the National Press Club just two days before the election. With the information available the Prime Minister and his office the question of whether the children had been thrown overboard and the status of the photographs was not corrected. You'd have to ask the Prime Minister why that occurred.
In my view now the Australian people are entitled to an apology from the Prime Minister, from Minister Reith and the Government for their failure to correct the record during this most sensitive time.
REPORTER: But there is no proof Mr Howard was personally told.
FAULKNER: Well there's as you know a lot of evidence that the Department, the Prime Minister's office were involved.
One of the difficulties that Labor Senators have had right through the hearings of the Senate Select Committee has been of course that there has been deliberate obstruction by the Government to allow us to question Ministerial and Prime Ministerial staff to be able to answer very clearly if when and where the Prime Minister was in formed of these incidents.
You know that the Government refused to allow departments and agencies to make submissions to the Committee and you know of course that the Government refused to allow key witnesses to appear before the inquiry.
But there is no doubt now that Government did know literally within days of the first false claims about children being thrown overboard that those claims were not correct and they went right to Ministers in the Government.
For example we know that Minister Reith on 11 October and 17 October, was told directly by his most senior advisor the CDF, that these claims were not true and we also know of course he was told very directly by the Acting Chief of the Defence Force precisely the same thing just a couple of days before the election campaign.
Surely the Australian people are entitled to an apology.
REPORTER: Admiral Barrie maintained up until Senate estimates that he didn't know that they weren't true and Peter Reith has said today that that is his defence, that his Senior Military Advisor didn't know himself that the claim had been corrected.
FAULKNER: Peter Reith would say that wouldn't he.
Peter Reith has absolutely no credibility in relation to these issues.
One good thing I suppose that we can now say in relation to this whole sorry episode is at least Peter Reith is no longer involved in public life given his deceit during the election campaign and I say, good riddance to bad rubbish.
REPORTER: In fact Peter Reith, Admiral Barrie and Dr Allan Hawke will or be removed from their posts if not gone already. Does that make you reassured ? Is that a positive thing for the public servants and officers of the Defence Department?
FAULKNER: From Day 1 the Government has tried to blame bureaucrats and tried to blame junior and senior officers in the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces.
The point is that the buck should stop with the Government. It's the Government who are culpable here. It is Ministers who are culpable here and culpable at a time the most sensitive time imaginable during an election campaign.
The Defence Forces acted quickly when false information was placed into the public arena. They acted quickly to correct the public record.
All those attempts fell on deaf ears, literally. Within two or three days of the false information being ascertained the Defence Force and the Department of Defence tried to correct the record. The problem is Ministers wouldn't act. They wouldn't hear.
Minister Reith knew and his office knew, with 14 direct contacts that there was no truth that children had been thrown overboard or that the photographs that were purported to represent that incident actually did represent that incident.
Of course it was photographs that were taken at the time of the sinking of the vessel.
Now he stands condemned for covering that up. His CDF, Admiral Barrie, on two occasions, on 11 and 17 October, and his Acting CDF, Air- Marshall Houston, told the Minister directly that were first of all concerns about the evidence, secondly there was no truth to the evidence and the Minister did nothing.
It didn't suit the Minister, it didn't suit the Government and this lie went uncorrected right through the election campaign and I think we've had since that time a real triumph in terms of the Senate Committee process because we've seen Senate Estimates and the Senate Select Committee that was established to investigate this incident probe the details, talk to and challenge and question those public servants that had direct or indirect responsibility and establish the truth about these issues.
Of course we'd have liked to do more because right through that process the Government tried to cover up and obstruct. But nevertheless to say this is I think a triumph of Senate accountability. This is the Senate at its best as a house of review.
REPORTER: the public first secondly why didn't you compel the witnesses who were not allowed by the Government to appear before the Committee?
FAULKNER: I have indicated and I'll say it again. On 13 occasions the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister's Department and the Prime Minister's office were informed about the fact that these claims were not true.
As far as the other issue goes in relation to the compellability of witnesses I've said from day one I am convinced that the Senate has the power to call witnesses before it but I've never wanted to change the nature of the Senate Committee system.
I don't want to turn Senate Inquiries into witch hunts.
I don't want a McCarthyist Australian Senate.
The Australian Senate is not a court of law. It is a very effective house of review and it's got probably the most effective committee system of any upper chamber in the world. And I don't want to see that reputation and capacity sullied.
I want to continue to see the Senate committee system operate as effectively as it has done on this occasion.
This shows what an effective committee system can do: get to the truth of these sorts of matters: expose a government that is involved in deceiving the Australian public and ensure that a government is held accountable.
Let's not turn the Senate in Australia and its committee system into some sort of McCarthyist witchhunt operation.
Let's not make the Senate Committees so partisan they won't be able to effectively conduct their business, their most important role which is the one that I've outlined.
REPORTER: The Government and the Democrats say that's gutless and hypocritical that you didn't support us at all.
FAULKNER: Well the Government would say that wouldn't they. The truth is that this committee shows how effective these sorts of inquiries can be.
With respect Fran can I say this to you. Neither you nor any of your colleagues standing here would know anything at all about these incidents without the extraordinary efforts of Labor Senators in Senate Estimates Committee hearings and in the Senate Select Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident.
It is a triumph of the committee system and I think even our harshest critics would have to acknowledge we have been able to expose an extraordinary web of deceit.
Now I've been wound up but hang on Michael, you want to ask me about SIEVX and I'll answer that and I'll have to quickly duck away. I'm sorry about this but I have to make a contribution in the -
REPORTER: I ask you whether Australian agencies could or should have done more to [avert] this tragedy
FAULKNER: The Committee has found that in our view, having closely examined all the available evidence, and I want to qualify this by saying that some evidence and some documentation wasn't provided by Government and some witnesses weren't able to appear before the Committee because they were blocked by appearing before the Committee by Defence Minister Hill.
But on the evidence that is available to our Committee we've been able to find no suggestion to support the feeling that the Defence Force knew about the sinking of SIEVX and did not act.
I think any such suggestion is unfair, very unfair, to the Australian Defence Force, particularly the Royal Australian Navy. I have confidence in what I've heard and so do my colleagues that they acted appropriately in relation to a safety of life at sea issue.
I want to say one thing more about this Michael if I can just before we go to the Chamber and that's this.
There are issues however that remain in relation to the disruption programme that's been conducted in terms of anti-people smuggling activities in Indonesia.
And it's my intention and it's my colleagues intention to continue to ask questions about what did occur in Indonesia. We think there's a lack of accountability in relation to that program.
We don't know what activities were approved and what were not. We don't know what activities were acceptable and what were not. We don't know what activities were funded. We don't know to what extent they were funded. We don't know where the funding came from. We do believe there is a lack of accountability about the disruption programme in Indonesia. We don't know enough about the authorisation in relation to the activities that were conducted in relation to the disruption program in Indonesia.
I can say this. We've said there should be an independent inquiry into the disruption programme in Indonesia. That is a recommendation of the Senate Select Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident.
I think it is an important recommendation. But I want to be very clear with all of you this afternoon.
If the Government doesn't act on the Committee's recommendations to call a full independent inquiry into the disruption programme I can guarantee that those issues will be subject still to intensive scrutiny from myself and my colleagues through the mechanism that's proved so effective so far in getting to the bottom of this great lie of the Government that's been exposed. That is we'll do it through the Senate committee system.