Bartlett to Hill, Questions On Notice
[Extracted from Senate Hansard, 16 June 2002 pp. 2160-2161]

Immigration: People-Smuggling
Senator BARTLETT (2.59 p.m.)-My question is to the Minister for Defence. My question relates to issues surrounding the sinking of the vessel which has come to be known as SIEVX, which resulted in the deaths of 353 asylum seekers. Minister, why did the Prime Minister repeatedly say during the election campaign that this vessel sank in Indonesian waters, when the minutes of the meeting of the People Smuggling Task Force of 23 October 2001, which was attended by three staff from the Prime Minister's department, state specifically that the vessel was `likely to have been in international waters'?

Senator HILL-The Prime Minister made that statement because that was the advice that he was given from his department. The location of the sinking of the vessel was based on what little information we knew about it, working from hindsight. We of course did not know at the time of the sinking of the vessel and, as it turned out, Australian naval vessels were not in the vicinity. We were not, in any event, able to assist. We subsequently learnt that the vessel had sunk, and we made a best estimate, on the basis of what information is able to be put together, as to where it did sink. I have referred to it as in the Sunda Strait; he referred to it as in Indonesian waters. The best evidence is that both of those answers are still correct. It is a very sad event and a sad illustration of the horrible business of people-smuggling-that illegal people smugglers will put the gullible into leaky boats in an overcrowded environment and run the risk of loss of life at sea. We very much regret that life was lost at sea in this instance. If this evil practice of people-smuggling can be got rid of in a permanent way, the chance of a recurrence of this sad event will go with it. The best thing at the moment, we believe, is to ensure that every possible disincentive is put in place to deter people smugglers from putting individuals at risk as they did in this instance.

Senator BARTLETT-Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, if, as you said in your answer, the Prime Minister said the vessel sank in Indonesian waters because that is what he was advised by his department, could you possibly try to find out what advice was provided to the People Smuggling Task Force-the highlevel group that oversees and coordinates all activities to do with surveillance of potential illegal arrivals-that led to their minutes stating that the vessel was likely to have been in international waters? Could you also outline whether or not the defence department has completed its internal review of intelligence matters relating to SIEVX and whether the report provided by that review does finally clarify where the boat sank? Finally, could you clarify whether or not any Australian official-not the Navy-was aware of this at the time?

Senator HILL-No official was aware of it at the time. There had been some intelligence that a vessel was leaving, and there is considerable conflict as to the date of the voyage and whether the vessel had in fact left. But, to assist the Senate committee that has been looking at this issue, we are putting together a chronology of what information we have been able to gather-again, with the benefit of hindsight-and we are developing an unclassified version of that which we intend to provide to the committee. We hope that that will be of assistance to them in their work. Madam President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.

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