[Extracted from Senate Hansard, 2 March 2006, pp.99-103]

GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY

Senator MILNE (Tasmania) (4.55 pm)- When the Prime Minister, John Howard, was re-elected at the federal election in 2004 and gained control of both houses of this parliament -an absolute majority-he undertook to the Australian people that he would not abuse his control of both houses of parliament. Yet what has occurred since has demonstrated that that commitment to government integrity and accountability was indeed a false one. It reflects what has gone on in the decade of the Howard government.

Whilst people can argue about the specifics of various scandals and rorts which have gone on-and I will refer to some of those- the things for which Prime Minister John Howard will be remembered in history are his failures in accountability in terms of where Australia sits in the world. He will be remembered for taking Australia to the war in Iraq because of alleged weapons of mass destruction. It was a false claim based on false intelligence and it has contributed to misery in Iraq. It is unjustified. What we have had since is the Wheat Board scandal finding that, when the Prime Minister was sending Australian troops to Iraq supporting President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, at the same time the Australian Wheat Board was abusing the UN sanctions regime and giving kickbacks. So, whilst at the time condemning Saddam Hussein, the Prime Minister was running a government overseeing the Australian Wheat Board, which was involved in what will be the greatest scandal of this government.

But, to go on, there is now sufficient evidence in the public arena to show absolutely that government ministers knew. They knew what was going on. Just this week in relation to Minister Downer, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, every document coming in for up to five years clearly showed that they knew what was going on with the Wheat Board in Iraq. Where is the Prime Minister’s code of conduct for his ministers? He brought in a code of conduct with much flair, but of course the code of conduct has disappeared as his ministers continue to be exposed, one after the other. Up to five of them are implicated at the moment in the Wheat Board scandal. We went to war on a lie. We have profited from that war via the Wheat Board scandal, and it is something for which Prime Minister Howard will be remembered.

But, even more profoundly than that, he will be remembered for the ‘children overboard’ affair. He will be remembered because it was the most disgraceful manipulation and exploitation of an appalling situation, in which people were trying to leave the persecution that they had suffered in their own countries and come to Australia to seek asylum. In a politically opportunistic way, the Prime Minister exploited the xenophobia and racism that were evident in the Australian community at the time, increased the levels of fear and announced that people were indeed throwing their children overboard.

It was an appalling scandal and, in the investigation into it, there was a lot of pressure brought to bear on a number of people with regard to that investigation. Nevertheless, the Australian people now know that there were no children thrown overboard and that it was in the context of an election campaign.

Something Australians will be extremely ashamed of, as they look back on it over the years, is that a prime minister won an election on the back of a lie about asylum seekers throwing their children overboard. I want to return to that in a moment or two, in relation to suspected illegal entry vessel X, the SIEVX, but before I do I want to refer to a couple of other areas in which this government will be seen to be totally lacking in accountability and integrity.

One area is climate change. We, as a globe, are facing the greatest security threat of our time with climate change. A report released yesterday gave a peek into what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will say when they release their report in April. It says that the top limit of how high temperatures are likely to rise by 2100 has now been taken away. Earlier, a top limit had been set of between two to 4˝ degrees being the likely temperature rise. Now some scientists say and some models show it could go as high as 11 degrees. There is talk of possible major climate accidents, including the possible disintegration of the west Antarctic ice shelf. If this were to occur, we would see a sea level rise of five metres.

Australia and the United States have refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol and, worse than that, have gone out of their way to frustrate and undermine efforts in every global negotiation for more stringent activity to be taken on climate change. Currently, both countries have policies which will take us nowhere near achieving the minimum of a 60 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. As people look back on this decade of the Howard government they will say that it was a complete decade of lost opportunity to address the greatest security issue of our time.

In terms of integrity and accountability, what is even worse is that we now find that the Howard government has used its influence to delete significant sections of scientific reports and has lent on the CSIRO, which is Australia’s premier research institution, to influence its research directions, such that we now find the CSIRO increasingly focused on coal and the fossil fuel economy rather than on renewable energy. We see it falling behind in climate modelling. We see the models that were being developed in Australia completely underfunded, to the point where scientists cannot do the public interest research which may lead to the breakthroughs that we need on a range of issues facing us at this time. Public interest research is essential, yet the head of the CSIRO has said, ‘It is partnerships or perish.’ In other words, science has to go to business with cap in hand and take what it can get, and the public interest research is not being done in Australia. I put that straight to the Howard government as a complete lack of accountability to the Australian people on climate change.

I now want to talk about political donations. We are about to see a new low standard in accountability in politics. At the moment, if a company gives more than $1,500 to a political party, it has to declare that donation. Declaring political donations is one of the best ways of being able to show where political parties are funded from and to being able to see if undue influences are being brought to bear on policy. What do we find? We find the Howard government proposes to lift that limit to $10,000 for companies, so that if you give up to $10,000 you do not have to declare that the company has given that amount of money. That will lead to corruption in the Australian political process and in our democracy. I would argue that it demonstrates a complete lack of government integrity and accountability.

That comes on the back of the government in the Senate refusing to provide papers that were asked for by opposition members, most recently in the house this week when we asked for the correspondence between the Prime Minister and Gunns. Gunns, the timber company in Tasmania, gave the Liberal Party $50,000 as a donation at the last federal election. The government has just given them $5 million in return. That is about the best return on an investment that you could get anywhere in the country at the moment, and it signals a very poor level of accountability. I say that because the Prime Minister said that the $5 million would be for a feasibility study if Gunns proceeded with a chlorine- free pulp mill. They have not. They have proceeded with a native forest based pulp mill, which will use chlorine dioxide. It is absolutely not what the Prime Minister said he would give them the money for, yet Senator Eric Abetz could not wait-he was falling over himself-to give Gunns the first instalment of $2˝ million even though this pulp mill is not economically viable. Even if you take out the issues about the environment, the economic viability is not there. The global price of chemical pulp is collapsing and has been collapsing over the last 30 years. If you look at that, you ask yourself: why would anyone bother investing in something when the price of the commodity is on a downward trend?

What I want to specifically raise today, in the context of the 10th anniversary, is the sinking of the SIEVX. I begin with a quote from one of the SIEVX survivors, who said, ‘Wherever you look you see the dead children like birds floating on the water.’ I do not think many people in the Australian community realise that on or about 18 October 2001, a small overloaded fishing boat left the Indonesian port of Bandar Lampung in Sumatra carrying 421 people. The next afternoon, the boat sank. The following day, after about 20 hours in the water, 45 survivors were rescued at sea by Indonesian fishermen off West Java. One hundred and forty-six children, 142 women and 65 men died in the sinking of the boat which later become known as the SIEVX.

The sinking of the SIEVX occurred during the 2001 federal election campaign in which issues about refugees figured in a very divisive way. The earlier rescue at sea by the Norwegian vessel, the Tampa, of a group of refugees whose boat had foundered prompted the federal government to set up Operation Relex, a military operation which aimed to prevent any boats carrying possible refugees from reaching Australian territorial waters. In November 2001 alleged people smuggler Abu Quassey was arrested in Bandung, West Java. On 13 February 2002 the Senate voted to set up a select committee to inquire into A Certain Maritime Incident -that was the alleged throwing of children overboard, and it also inquired into events surrounding the sinking of the SIEVX.

On 23 October 2002 the Senate inquiry report A Certain Maritime Incident was tabled. The committee found it extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur, and remain undetected, in an area where Operation Relex, a major theatre of Australian military and civilian operations, was taking place. The report found no negligence or dereliction of duty in relation to the relevant Australian authorities but found it disturbing that none of the relevant authorities carried out any review despite the public furore surrounding the tragedy. Further information about aspects of the SIEVX tragedy continue to emerge and the matter is being pursued every time we hold a Senate estimates hearing and as we move more motions in the Senate.

On 7 November 2003 the alleged people smuggler Khaled Daoed was extradited from Sweden to Australia to face charges over the SIEVX, and on 27 December 2003 Abu Quassey was sentenced to five years imprisonment in Egypt for homicide through negligence in relation to the SIEVX and to two years on charges related to assisting illegal immigration. On 14 July 2005 Khaleed Daoed was sentenced by a Brisbane court to nine years in prison for people-smuggling. But what we want to know-and this is where the accountability of the Howard government comes in-is: why will they not release the names of the 353 people who died? The community and the families of those people want to know. They want the certainty and they want the names. At least three lists have been circulated at various times to various people but the government still will not provide the 353 names. There is a move to build a memorial to the SIEVX here in Canberra in line of sight of Parliament House so that forever the federal government and the people in this house of parliament can look down on that monument which is to be called A Landmark of Conscience. I think that is an absolutely apt name for it because people want to know what actually happened with the SIEVX. What level of accountability do the government have in relation to this? What we want to know is: why do the government continue to deny that the SIEVX sank in the Operation Relex area of operation despite clear evidence that it did so? If the government set up Operation Relex, why were they not following this particular boat and why did they not come in and rescue the people? Did they know the people were there and did they let them drown?

Why will the government not come clean on what its disruption activities were in Indonesia? Why will it not release the protocol related to the memorandum of understanding with the Indonesian National Police? Because the protocol enabled the Australian government to oversee the disruption activities that were carried out. We want to know what those disruption activities were, and whether they included allowing those boats to be sabotaged before they left Indonesia. As the government admits, it has identified two organisers of the SIEVX disaster and both have been prosecuted and convicted, so why cannot the Australian Federal Police now answer all of the outstanding questions to enable the survivors to finally understand what happened? Why does the government continue to ignore three years of Senate demands for a full independent judicial inquiry into the SIEVX and into people-smuggling activities?

I have met some of the survivors of the SIEVX and I cannot understand to this day why they have not all been interviewed by the Federal Police about what they know and what they saw. They were in the water for that period of time; they were in the water for 20 hours. Many of them say that they heard noises in the area. Others say that there were substantial lights in the area and, as I indicated previously, the federal government had set up Operation Relex to look for illegal entry vessels coming to Australia-that is the Navy and the Air Force. Let us have the records from the Navy and the Air Force as to where they all were at the time that this vessel sank because until we get to the bottom of this we have a situation where 146 children, 142 women and 65 men died trying to come to Australia, and the suspicion is that somehow the government knew that they were there.

It is in the government’s interest, and it is in the whole community’s interest, to get to the bottom of this because the survivors need to know what happened and the Australian government ought to tell the Australian people what it knows about what happened. As long as the government refuses to answer the questions, refuses to release the lists of names, refuses to release the protocol it had with the Indonesian National Police about disruption activities in Indonesia, we are never going to know what actually happened.

I can assure the government that it does not matter whether John Howard stays another five years or whether the Prime Minister is replaced by somebody else as leader of this government, the scandals that have hit Australia in this decade of the Howard government will stay and the Howard government will be remembered ultimately for Guantanamo Bay and the failure to stand up for an Australian citizen, David Hicks; for the kowtowing to President Bush over Guantanamo Bay; for taking Australia to an absolutely unjustified war in Iraq against the better judgment of the United Nations; for the SIEVX; for the ‘children overboard’; for a grossly unfair system of welfare and support in this country; and for leaving a generation of university students with such a debt that they have to delay getting on with their lives because they have to pay back those debts. An indebted future generation of young Australians will remember John Howard for the decade in which they have to try to pay back the fees that they have had to pay because of your policies. I think you are going to find that the Howard government is rapidly going to disappear into history as one that set a new and lower standard of government integrity and accountability in Australian politics.

X-URL: http://www.aph.gov.au/hansard/senate/dailys/ds020306.pdf

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