Late Night Live
6 November 2002
Transcript of extract of Senator John Faulkner discussing SIEVX and the People Smuggling Disruption Program in Indonesia
Phillip Adams: I've wanted you on the program for a while to discuss the Senate Inquiry into A Certain Maritime Incident. First of all, I know you were tenacious on the SIEVX issue when noone seemed to want to address it, least of all your colleagues in the party. Did you feel lonely during your pursuit of that particular tragedy, that moment in the national narrative that has been so carefully in a sense expunged from living memory?
John Faulkner: No I didn't feel lonely. The original terms of reference, Phillip, of the Kids Overboard Committee which has that wonderful name 'A Senate Select Committee Into A Certain Maritime Incident' didn't really enable us to go to the issue of SIEVX. The terms of reference were expanded by the Government senators on the committee and of course as far as the Opposition was concerned we gratefully agreed to such an extension of the terms of reference which allowed us to look at the question of SIEVX.
Phillip Adams: We should remind the listener that we are talking about the boat that foundered on route from Indonesia to Australia on which 352 [sic] men, women and children died right in the middle of a federal election. And Tony Kevin, an ex-diplomat, started raising questions about the boat - what had happened, where it had happened, indeed, what made it happen - which then got an airing under your wing at that inquiry.
The thing that came out of it, or started to come out of it was that there had been a policy of what's called 'disruption' involving tampering with boats or trying to discourage the boats from even leaving shore. How far down that track did you get and what did you learn?
John Faulkner: That was the issue that I raised in the Senate Children Overboard Committee and also in Senate Estimates Committee - that's the issue that I suppose has most concerned me about the anti-people-smuggling activities that were taking place in Indonesia. And you're right to say that Mr Kevin, a former diplomat - Tony Kevin had raised certain issues, but didn't go to the disruption program. He was concerned that the Australian Defence Force, particularly the Royal Australian Navy, may not have adequately or properly conducted themselves in a Safety of Life at Sea situation.
Phillip Adams: Yes, that they may have turned a blind eye or a deaf ear to the sinking...
John Faulkner: Well, myself and my fellow Committee members did take that issue very seriously and I've got to say to you that I haven't found any evidence to support that. But through the Inquiry my concerns have grown about the disruption activities which are activities that occur on the ground in Indonesia in relation to stopping people-smuggling activities.
I'm worried about the level of accountability. I'm worried about who carries these activities out. I'm worried about who pays for them. I wonder what's acceptable and what's not...
Phillip Adams: And you have to be worried about whether they put lives at risk. Look, Tony Kevin came to me very early in the story before anyone was picking it up in the press and he did express concern about the way the boat had disintegrated. It seemed to him that it may in fact have been got at. Now, did you find any plausible evidence - not on SIEVX, I know that that wasn't forthcoming - that there had been attempts to sabotage the boats by persons or persons unknown before they leave Indonesia?
John Faulkner: Look, I think that's basically unknown Phillip. I've indicated all the way through the recent hearings of the Children Overboard Committee that there are a lot of unanswered questions, there are a lot of issues that require further explanation. And I simply don't know, and I don't think anyone else knows at the moment, what were these disruption activities. I know some detail about them and some of what I know I don't think is controversial and I don't think reasonable people would argue that discouraging people-smugglers from setting sail from Indonesia in unseaworthy boats is a worthy objective for any agency that is actually doing that.
But I certainly still have major concerns about what disruption activities occurred, what accountability mechanisms were in place, what the funding was for them, who funded them, who carried these activities out and a whole range of issues like that, that I intend to continue to explore. I think there are a lot of unanswered questions.
Phillip Adams: Let's get back to the other certain maritime question. You've been criticised for not stamping your foot and throwing a tantrum about Reith's non-appearance and also about the non-appearance of others. Now you've made the point to me off-mike,that you didn't want Senate Inquiries in Australia to take on the menacing and dangerous quality of say the McCarthy hearings in the US. But isn't it a pretty careful balancing act?
John Faulkner: It is and Senate Committees are at their best when they probe the actions of government. Now I respectfully say to you and to your listeners Phillip, that virtually no Australian would know anything about the children overboard incident if it wasn't for the effort of Labor senators during Senate Estimates Committee hearings and during the Senate Select Committee that was established. And that's when you've got Senate Committees absolutely at their best, that's what they're good at. And I don't want to see the Senate Committee system change into a less effective and more partisan type of committee system...
Phillip Adams: John, they're always partisan...
John Faulkner: But I've been in the Senate now Phillip for thirteen years. I've never agreed to and never voted for the summonsing of a witness before a Senate or Joint parliamentary Committee. The Senate is a house of Parliament - it is not a court of law, its not a court of law. And I think that is a very, very important distinction for us to keep in our mind. I don't want to see the Senate Committees change the way they operate because I happen to believe Phillip they are the best accountability mechanism we have in the Australian parliament or for that matter in any Australian parliament.
Phillip Adams: They are very good for internal audit within the government sphere. I'll concede that. I've watched over the years any number of statutory organisations or bodies like even dare I suggest - the ABC - sweating in anticipation of their day before the senators because the senate does in that case dig deep. But it seems to me tragic that this particular inquiry couldn't even get in front of it one of the most prominent players who was a federal minister.
John Faulkner: Well that's right and it wasn't for want of trying. But you see you've also got to look at this issue Phillip - you're talking about Peter Reith I assume in this case and Peter Reith and a small number of ministerial staff certainly should have responded to the many invitations they received. But you've got to ask yourself the question - What happens when the senate abuses its power? Now I've seen the senate...
Phillip Adams: I was going to ask if you have memories of abuse in the Senate.
John Faulkner: Well I do have those memories and I'm not going to cross that line. I'm not going to see the Senate abuse its power...
Phillip Adams: Then there's the other problem. Say you'd called Reith and he'd refused to come. What the hell do you do then?
John Faulkner: Well the only sanctions are to either fine or jail him. Now of course those few people who've argued long and loud that the Senate Committee should have frog marched Reith and the ministerial advisers into the Committee don't understand that they're indemnified by the government, the senate doesn't have the resources to fight this out before the high court or through the legal system - but even if we did - by the way I actually think the senate's got the power to call these people. It hasn't got the power to call a serving member of the House of Representatives but I do believe it has the power to call ministerial advisers and a former member of the house of representatives. When they don't come and when they take you on, what sanction do you have? It's simple - fining them or jailing them. Now what would you do and other reasonable minded people do when the senators decide to try that course of action - effectively there's no sanction. And why go down that track if at the end of the day you're not willing - and I'm not willing to put a person in jail, I'm not willing to do that or fine them for failing to front to a senate committee. And because I'm not willing to do that I'm not willing to summons them - I'm not willing to force the issue.