Senator Jacinta Collins (ALP)
Senate Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident
Tabling the Report in the Senate
Image: Thanks to the Lighter Footprints climate change action group
"The pattern of behaviour record that this government refers to, was provided to the government on request by the government in a fashion designed by the government to suit the government."
"When in our hearings we were able to prove that one of the perceptions reported in that report had not in fact occurred, the poor hapless defence officer involved could not even see the distinction between perception and fact.
"He basically indicated that what he had put to this committee was a table of perceptions.
"Senator Brandis knows, on the evidence, that the purported strangulation incident that he trotted out to the Australian to demonise asylum seekers-and that was front page news-did not occur.
15 March 2004: Concluding Statements, A Certain Maritime Incident - The reality of the inquiry into the children overboard affair is that at best there are inconsistencies and contradictions in the evidence given before the Senate Inquiry by the most senior of Defence and PMC officials. At worst there are fundamental omittances, half-truths, untruths and cover-ups.
23 July 2003: John Faulkner, The Aftermath of the CMI Inquiry - "John Howard indicated that he was prepared to spend whatever money it took to deter boatpeople from arriving on the Australian mainland. But have there been other costs? What has been the cost of the Howard Government's disruption programme in Indonesia - not just the financial cost? I intend to keep asking questions until I find out. I intend to keep pressing for an independent judicial inquiry into these very serious matters."
COMMITTEES: A Certain Maritime Incident Committee: Report
Senator JACINTA COLLINS (Victoria) (5.57 p.m.) -I will not grace the contribution made by Senator Ferguson just now in relation to the process of this inquiry with further comments in the small amount of time that I have. Anyone who has followed this inquiry is able to see the manner in which it was conducted quite fairly and openly by the chair, Senator Cook. But let me go to the one reference from the media that Senator Ferguson referred to, because it is my opportunity to correct for the record the inaccuracy of the garbage that this government has been feeding the media. In that same article, Glenn Milne accused me of vainly seeking to do something that simply was not the case. There is no substance for his claim. There is nothing on the record that can sustain it and he must have been misled by government senators feeding him tripe. Let me go further, though, to the issue of the pattern of behaviour, because it will be relevant-if I get the time-to a theme that I have explored in my additional comments.
The pattern of behaviour record that this government refers to was provided to the government on request by the government in a fashion designed by the government to suit the government. When in our hearings we were able to prove that one of the perceptions reported in that report had not in fact occurred, the poor hapless defence officer involved could not even see the distinction between perception and fact. He basically indicated that what he had put to this committee was a table of perceptions. Senator Brandis knows, on the evidence, that the purported strangulation incident that he trotted out to the Australian to demonise asylum seekers-and that was front page news-did not occur.
Senator Brandis -I rise on a point of order, Madam Acting Deputy President. That is unparliamentary. I have been accused of attempting to demonise asylum seekers. I have attempted to do no such thing. I have simply, in a clinical way, called attention to the facts. I ask you to insist that it be withdrawn.
Senator Cook -Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on the point of order. The remark made is not unparliamentary. Senator Brandis knows full well that it is not unparliamentary. The point of his point of order was to interrupt Senator Collins.
Senator Ferguson -Hang on: how many times did you interrupt us with points of order?
Senator Cook -But I was justified; you're not! I have made my point of order.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator McLucas)-There is no point of order.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -In relation to Senator Brandis's claim, his report- and he is joined by the other government senators-purports to represent the facts. Let us just take pause for the moment and see precisely what it does. Senator Ferguson has already said that he did not look at the Odgers report. The Odgers report, which I did refer to in my report, is quite clear on the matter. On page 39, it says:
In my opinion, it was misleading of Mr Reith not to refer in the interview on 14 October to the doubt he knew existed in relation to the attribution of the photographs.
I am not surprised that this component and other references in the Odgers report do not appear in the report of the government senators because, as Senator Brandis has already gloated, rather than providing a forensic and balanced approach to the evidence, he really has been-as he has gloated in the media- defence counsel to Howard and Reith. He cannot pretend to be both defence counsel and judge at the same time, and he knows that well. Rather than a forensic and balanced position, he has presented a selective representation of the evidence aimed at a target. This target I am referring to now is the one I find most offensive. For him to have targeted Commander Banks in his selective representation of the evidence is outrageous. For him to then be here claiming this tactic about open findings is absolutely outrageous. There is no other conclusion in relation to Commander Banks and Brigadier Silverstone-
Senator Brandis -Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I have been accused of something which is false. I have been accused of targeting Commander Banks. I have not done so.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)-What is your point of order, Senator Brandis?
Senator Brandis -My point of order is that the allegation is false. I believe Commander Banks told the truth to the committee at all times, and there is nothing in the minority report that suggests to the contrary.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT -There is no point of order.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -I have not suggested that Senator Brandis has suggested that Commander Banks lied. We all know that he did not. We all know that both Commander Banks and Brigadier Silverstone demonstrated the finest of our Defence Force integrity, as did many others. However, Commander Banks has been set up by the government as the target for blame. He has been scapegoated in this report, but any reasonable person who looks at the evidence fully-and I stress fully-set out in the majority report would conclude that there is no way we can ever conclude what occurred, unless, as the witnesses said, the incident had been taped, and it had not. We found that both officers have the highest of integrity but, again, as they said to us, that is not the point. The point is that, when that misunderstanding occurred, what happened? It is that that the government is culpable for. Let me go to that particular point: why did John Howard on 18 February on the John Faine program say:
... I never received any written contradiction of that, nor did I receive any verbal contradiction of that.
When asked in his office, the answer was no. The facts are that on 13 occasions it did occur. I am not bothering to go to the detail of the 14 occasions when it did with respect to Peter Reith and his office; I think you are just in absolute denial there.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT -Senator Collins, are you saying that I am in denial?
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -No, I am sorry.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT -I would appreciate it if you would address your remarks through the chair.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -I will refer my remarks through the chair. However, Mr Acting Deputy President, you may be, in part, if you accept the government senators' response on this issue.
Senator Ferguson -Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. That is a reflection on the chair and I ask that it be withdrawn.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT -There is no point of order.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -I have not bothered going to the detail of the case against Peter Reith because our independent assessor has done that quite well. It is just interesting that the government did not refer to that. In my remarks, I have looked at the detail of what John Howard, his office and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet did do. That is where the principal concern is. As I reflected in my comments, a couple of months before the election--
Senator Ferguson -Why didn't you put them in the main report?
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -Because they are my personal reflection of some issues.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT -Senator Ferguson, I feel obliged to hear Senator Collins.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -Some senior defence officers privately raised concerns with the culture and agenda which was developing in PM&C. I will comment on this later tonight in relation to the conduct of the Prime Minister's task force and Jane Halton, but the blame in this very circumstantial case goes directly back to John Howard.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT -The Prime Minister or Mr Howard.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -The Prime Minister. Some excerpts from the ship's logs had not been made fully public, but there are some excerpts of those logs in my comments. Who, for instance, was intruding between a request from the boarding party at 0751 zulu that women and children be moved off the SIEV, a request, at 1009 zulu, that people be put in the water on the double and then, at 1036 zulu, the comment 'contacting parliament on the crisis'? Why on earth would you be contacting parliament between people being put in the water and being put somewhere safely? The time gap between those poor people being put in the water at 1009 and the final instruction that they could go onto the Adelaide was at 1100 zulu. Why did it take 51 minutes for the Prime Minister's office to intrude in this situation rather than just let the Navy get on with their job and the principal imperative relating to safety of life at sea?
I encourage people to look at these logs with this in mind, because there are countless incidents where the Prime Minister's office needed to be consulted, or the Prime Minister responded, when the principal objective - on which the Navy should have been allowed to do their job - was to treat these people with dignity and safety. But this did not occur, because of the much broader agenda of the Howard government and its border protection plan - one that it did not consult the public on and that it implemented during an election period. During a caretaker period, it made a fundamental change in policy. (Time expired)
ADJOURNMENT: A Certain Maritime Incident Committee Report
Senator JACINTA COLLINS (Victoria) (7.58 p.m.) -It is a pleasure, in returning to the report of the Senate Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident, which was tabled earlier today, to follow Senator Payne with her references to the admirable behaviour of our Defence Force personnel. She has relayed her experience akin to the experience that I had in the previous year of our new parliamentary program on the HMAS Adelaide.
I want to return briefly to the additional comments that I added to our report, where I highlighted that one of the very clear findings of this report, one of the very clear things proven in this report, is the absolute integrity of our Defence Force personnel. The many sad reflections that have been made in a number of other areas can be dealt with another time. However, I want to extend the comments that I made on the culture that had been reported to me from some defence personnel which had been developed in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and focus tonight on just one small element of how that culture developed. Looking at the government's People Smuggling Task Force, which was headed by Ms Jane Halton, I would like to go to the findings that the committee made in relation to that task force. We found:
The Taskforce failed to observe certain key principles of best practice in the conduct of its operations, thereby exposing itself to inappropriate levels of risk in the management of information. The Taskforce failed to establish at the outset a control structure appropriate to the nature of the activities upon which it was embarked. Overall, it lacked a clear governance framework defining accountability and reporting arrangements and the roles and responsibilities of the various participants. In particular:
Copies of advices to the government prepared by the Taskforce and other outcomes of Taskforce deliberations, were not distributed to the participating agencies that contributed to those deliberations, thereby denying agencies the opportunity to correct errors or to clarify misleading information.
The Taskforce's proceedings and decisions were not sufficiently well minuted, thereby preventing a reasonable record of the Taskforce's activities from being available to its many participants, and rendering the activities of the Taskforce largely inaccessible to subsequent scrutiny.
There was considerable variation in the manner of 'reporting back' by participants to their home agencies. In many instances it was insufficient to ensure a coherent engagement of the agencies with the Taskforce and inhibited the adequate 'hand over' of advice between the various representatives from the same agency who attended Taskforce meetings on different occasions.
Within the Taskforce and between the Taskforce and agencies and/or ministers, information flows were often poorly managed with inadequate attention being paid to risk mitigation and the detection and correction of errors in information.
The Committee is not questioning the integrity of the individual participants on the Taskforce, but finds substantial weaknesses in its basic administrative operations, including record keeping, risk management and reporting back.
Beyond that statement, tonight I would like to reflect on the management of the People Smuggling Task Force and of course its manager, Ms Jane Halton. Ms Halton was involved in a policy that was playing chicken with people's lives. One might question the full role of her behaviour in this, but it is clear from examples such as the one I highlight when I show excerpts from the log of the HMAS Adelaide that this is what in fact transpired.
I take the Senate again to the log references that are part of the additional comments that I made to the report. In respect of SIEV4, at 7.51 zulu time the boarding party 'request to move children and women off'. But at 10.09 zulu they are still on the ship, and we have the recommendation to 'put people in the water' on the double. At 10.36, the ship is 'contacting parliament on the crisis'. We have people in the water and we are contacting parliament on the crisis, according to this log. Finally, at 11.00 zulu-which is 51 minutes after these people were put in the water-HMAS Adelaide's RHIBs were instructed to bring children on board the Adelaide.
How can it be that the discussions that were going through the task force and through PM&C in relation to how to manage these asylum seekers allowed people to be put in the water for 50 minutes? Compare that with Ms Halton's statements that she was concerned about women and the garb that they were wearing-I think she referred to it as the Hajib, although it is probably better described as the Burqua - and how they might survive in the water in such garb. People were in the water for 51 minutes.
If we go to SIEV10, we know two women died. We still do not know the full details about how or why they died, but we know that they died and they were in the water. Yet, if you look at this log reference from the HMAS Adelaide, you can see that the servicemen involved-the people who were in the boarding party-were saying at 7.51, almost three hours earlier, 'Take these women and children off.' And we need to know who stopped them. Who was playing chicken with these people's lives? A concern expressed by Ms Halton that she was concerned about women in this sort of garb being in the water beggars belief when you read things such as these logs and see what happened to people.
But that is not the only problem with Ms Halton's evidence. If you look at her evidence, you will see 53 occasions when she just cannot recall. There are another 10 occasions when she cannot remember. There is a strange element to her evidence. When she is explaining something that works in the favour of the position that she is trying to maintain for the government, her memory is crystal clear, but when she is being questioned on conflicting or damaging evidence you observe memory loss, lack of recall, fidgetiness and like behaviour.
If we look today at what the reward has been for what I would describe as a very convenient memory, Ms Halton has been well rewarded. She is now the secretary of one of the biggest Commonwealth departments. But what I think is worse, and what I think has been a slap in the face for these asylum seekers whom she played chicken with to some degree, is that she received the Public Service medal for policy reform on illegal immigration. I say tonight that she should hand that medal back! What this committee report states about the behaviour of the task force and the culture in PM&C indicates quite clearly that she has no right to claim that medal. She has been involved in some degree in playing chicken with people's lives and she should return that medal to the Australian public.
Senate adjourned at 8.07 p.m.
MATTERS OF PUBLIC INTEREST: Immigration: Asylum Seekers
Senator JACINTA COLLINS (Victoria) (1.10 p.m.) -A significant matter of public interest in contemporary terms is this government's management of asylum seekers arriving at our borders. The Senate and the general public are broadly aware of the 'children not-overboard' incident. Many concerns still remain in relation to what occurred with the ship now characterised as SIEVX. Yesterday the Senate called for a judicial inquiry into the handling of SIEVX and Australia's disruption activities in Indonesia. I anticipate strong support for the motion that I will be moving today in respect of the alleged people smuggler Abu Quassey, the man strongly connected to what subsequently occurred to SIEVX and the loss of more than 350 lives. But today I want to focus on the treatment of asylum seekers aboard the four SIEVs-suspected illegal entry vessels-returned to Indonesia last year. There is a recent Human Rights Watch report dealing with additional information about how some of those asylum seekers were treated. It is important that the Senate note that report and some of the information available therein.
To remind the Senate and the public of the background of matters involved here, a significant change in Australia's approach to border protection occurred in the lead-up to the last federal election. But what many people have forgotten, or had not realised, is that a fundamental change occurred in our management of asylum seekers during the caretaker period leading up to the last election, where the government summarily changed its approach to managing these suspected illegal entry vessels and started returning them to the Indonesian coastline. What we still do not know today, in many respects, is how that return was effected. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of that is in this Human Rights Watch report, where on page 40 under the heading, 'Australian interceptions at sea', we are told:
When Australia prevents vessels transporting asylum seekers from reaching its shores it engages in interception. A number of countries practice interception at sea, but Australia has set a dangerous precedent in terms of how they are conducted and resolved.
In many respects, the Australian parliament and the Australian public still do not know how they are conducted and resolved.
I have some sympathy for the defence officials and the Navy officers and personnel involved in some of these interceptions. Through this and other reports, we have heard stories of Navy personnel in tears as they dealt with some of these asylum seekers. Unfortunately, in some instances I think Navy personnel are bearing criticism for actions that may not indeed have involved Navy personnel. We still do not know precisely which Australian personnel were involved with the handling of asylum seekers on some of these ships. Some of them were other defence personnel, and I would not be surprised if some others were the personnel of other Australian agencies, such as the Australian Federal Police.
What this report does highlight are a few of the cases that, at least in the Australian parliament, we have not been able to test the veracity of. Some of those are enough to make you weep. Looking at one of those cases cited on page 41 of the Human Rights Watch report in relation to the unnecessary use of force aboard SIEV5, we see that the families who were on HMAS Warramunga told the Human Rights Watch how they were forcibly put back on the fishing vessel after the Australians had taken them to the edge of Indonesian waters. This practice itself is questioned, but then there is the matter of how it was undertaken-for instance, one man was beaten until he was unconscious. The report quotes one woman as saying:
"We tried to put our babies at the soldier's feet and begged them to have mercy on the children: 'Where are the rights of the children?' I asked in Persian, and a man translated that question for me." When they saw that their pleas were having no effect, her husband moved forward to try to pick up his child, but his sudden movement alarmed the soldiers, who pinned him down on his back on the floor. The baby was left clinging to his chest.
The report further quoted this woman as saying:
They had iron military badges on their shoulders, and one man touched it with his stick to show the electric sparks. Then they beat the sides and ribs of my husband with the electric sticks until he was unconscious. He was hit at least four times. The baby held onto his neck throughout this beating. I thought he had died, and when they moved away from his motionless body I rushed forward to rescue the baby.
Senator Brandis -You know that has been denied by the military, don't you, Senator Collins?
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -Senator Brandis, I am glad that you are happy to have this interchange.
Senator Brandis -You ought to show a bit more loyalty to Australian service personnel and not uncritically accept what the refugees say.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -I will refer to anybody, and, in fact, I invite Senator Brandis to make a contribution following my own.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot) -Senator Collins should be heard in silence.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -I will invite anybody to assess the Australian government's response to some of these claims, and I am simply referring to claims at this stage, Senator Brandis.
Senator Brandis -I notice you did not mention the denials by the people in queues.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT -Senator Collins should be heard in silence, Senator Brandis.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -With respect to these claims, the main concern I have, and the point I made earlier, is our inability to test the veracity of these claims. This is my problem and this is one of my frustrations with much of the material that we dealt with during the 'children overboard' inquiry. But let me move on to some of the other reports and claims. Again, I will not pretend: they are simply reports and claims.
Senator Brandis -Make sure you mention the denials this time.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -I would like to remind the Senate of a Four Corners program where the next concern raised by this Human Rights Watch report, although not actually covered in this Human Rights Watch report, was in relation to the return of SIEV7. The Four Corners investigation, broadcast on 15 April this year, deals with how SIEV7 was returned. In appears that the ship was taken by a large Navy vessel to Indonesian waters and perhaps closer to the coast. The ship then retreated and left a vessel, which was marginally seaworthy, to become beached 400 metres from shore. This occurred in the middle of the night. The asylum seekers on this ship claim that, in the middle of the night, their ship started breaking up. They had no choice. They could not remain beached 400 metres from the shore. They had to make their way to the coast. In the middle of the night, they had to carry people who could not swim and women and children through chest or higher depth water, by the sounds of it, to the coast.
What is claimed - and there are three individuals actually named, and I would perhaps like to name them now in my comments-is that three people simply disappeared. The three people have never been seen again. The Four Corners program in April this year reported that no-one saw Hussein Yahia, Thamer Hussein and, the third man, Haithem Dawood. We do not know if they drowned. When I relay this claim to other colleagues, the comment I get back is, 'When we returned these ships, did that not involve any appropriate way of getting them to the coast?' And I say, 'From this story, it appears not.' They say, 'Why, if we are going to return these people are we not guaranteeing that their return is conducted safely?' We do not know the answer to this.
When we look at the preliminary report released earlier than the Human Rights Watch report, one of the criticisms is the manner in which the closure of our coastal border took place, involving, for instance, the detention of men, women and children in 'cruel, inhuman and degrading' conditions on board fishing vessels and the abandonment of dangerously overloaded boats in the open seas rather than their delivery to a 'place of safety'. This is probably one of the significant differences between the Australian Labor Party's policy on asylum seekers and border protection and the way in which the government has conducted this.
Senator Brandis -Do you believe this Senator Collins?
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -I have suspended my disbelief on this, Senator Brandis, until we can actually see some facts.
Senator Brandis -That is what the 'children overboard' inquiry was about.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT -Senator Brandis, you are out of order and you are unruly.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS -What I am concerned about is that we cannot see the facts. The government has not provided us with the facts-the detail of how precisely these four SIEVs were returned to the Indonesian coast. Until I can be confident that I know the facts, Senator Brandis, I do suspend my disbelief on this issue. But the principal issue of difference between the government's policy and our own is that we say, 'If these returns are to be effected, they should be conducted safely.' This is why we do need a coast guard. Our Navy personnel and infrastructure are not geared up for safely returning people to another country's coastline, particularly at a time when our international agreements with that country do not accept that the people should be returned in the first instance. Until we have defence personnel who are trained to carry out this type of very distressing work effectively and until we have the appropriate infrastructure-whether that be ships capable of getting closer to shore rather than large Navy vessels-we have questions. And we do not have the answers.
In the Human Rights Watch report entitled By Invitation Only: Australian asylum policy released yesterday, there are very concerning reports. The Senate deserves an answer. The Australian parliament and the Australian people deserve an answer. We need to know that we are breaking up people-smuggling and that we are preventing people coming to our borders through that type of trade but that when we are doing that we are treating those very people with compassion and guaranteeing their safety. That includes knowing that if we are returning them to the Indonesian coastline we are doing so safely. I have, Senator Brandis, suspended belief that that has been the case. In these reports-and I encourage you to read them carefully-you will see Australia's response and you will be able to make your own judgment on how satisfying that response is. I commend this report to all senators. It is the first time apart from that Four Corners program in April last year that some of these details and some of the reports from the asylum seekers involved have become available.
I anticipate quite strongly that the Senate will move today that Abu Quassey be pursued more seriously by both the Australian Federal Police and the Australian government. If we are serious about discouraging people smugglers, we cannot simply wait until 1 January, and he disappears. The Australian government cannot afford to maintain the position that we are hard on people smugglers and asylum seekers - we turn them back to Indonesia; we treat them in some of the ways that have been alleged in this report - but we are not serious about bringing a people smuggler like Abu Quassey to justice. If that man goes free on 1 January next year, let it be on the head of the government that they are not really serious about addressing people smugglers.