SIEV X: In Defence of Defence
Concluding Statements, Senate Select Committee On A Certain Maritime Incident
Senator Jacinta Collins is an ALP Senator for Victoria and the Federal Shadow Minister for Children and Youth
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"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."
"The Prime Minister has sought to distract from this reality by alleging an attack on the Defence Forces but what the Prime Minister fails to realise is that ultimately truth is self-evident."
15 March 2004: Senator Jacinta Collins and A Certain Maritime Incident - With the tabling in the Senate of the Report of the Senate Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident (23 Oct 2002), Senator Collins contributed with two important speeches. "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."
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."
In concluding its deliberations the Senate Select Committee On A Certain Maritime Incident (a.k.a children overboard affair) is forced to reflect on the unfortunate lack of outcome that its processes have been able to produce. Indeed, whilst the government has continued to describe the inquiry, and particularly the consideration of the ill fated SIEV X, as an attack on Australian Defence Forces, it is quite clear that the only real outcome of the inquiry has been to confirm the absolute integrity of Defence personnel. Unquestionably, the inquiry has established that the Australian men and women who form our defence core are humanitarians who seek to protect and defend the lives of all people within their jurisdictions. What the inquiry has not been able to establish is an explanation for the inappropriate actions and behaviour of the most senior Defence officials. Further, and perhaps more significantly, the inquiry also failed to expose the efforts of the Australian Prime Minister and Cabinet to "deter and deny" the Australian people from the truth about those who have sought asylum in Australia.
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. The Prime Minister has sought to distract from this reality by alleging an attack on the Defence Forces but what the Prime Minister fails to realise is that ultimately truth is self-evident.
A basic consideration of the raw evidence proves that the men and women of the Australian Defence Forces sought to protect life at sea in every demanded instance. However, what the raw evidence also proves is that the extraordinary direction coming from the most senior officials of Defence and PMC was to "deter and deny", irrespective of the circumstance. Whilst the Report Of The Senate Select Committee On A Certain Maritime Incident fails to adequately address this material the matter is perhaps self evident in the following extracts of the SHIPS LOG & BOARDING LOG of HMAS Adelaide.
|Adelaide Sunday 7 October|
|Christmas IS AO|
|15.15||Command intention to repair SIEV & send them North|
|15.29||SUNCs claimed UN Assistance due to political problems in their homeland|
|15.44||Brig awaiting Prime Minister to make decision on SIEV|
|15.50||Prime Minister determined ADE will tow SIEV to place to be determined|
|15.54||Command intentions prepare to tow SIEV|
|Adelaide Sunday 7 October|
|Christmas IS AO|
|15.27||1 Sunk (SUNC) wants UN to be told of location of SIEV. He has sick women & Children on board|
|15.30||BPO confirms engine beyond repair and steering is also useless|
|15.30||CO intends to tow awaiting approval from NORCOM|
|15.49||CO advised approval from PMOF (Prime Ministers Office) Aust to tow vessel to place to be determined|
These two extracts clearly demonstrate that although the personnel of the Australian Defence Force sought to carry out their fundamental duties they were often restricted by the instruction to await the advice of the senior officials of Defence and PMC. Further, the extract below from the OPS ROOM NARRATIVE demonstrates that even in the most desperate and distressing of circumstances, Defence personnel were inhibited in their ability to assist because they were forced to wait for instruction from Federal Parliament.
|OPS ROOM NARRATIVE|
|Thursday 4 October|
|51z||CO has been authorised by (name deleted from record) to board the vessel if necessary to stop them entering Christmas Island|
|35z||Boarding Party has disembarked SIEV. Awaiting intentions from HQ-NORCOM|
|50z||CO 1MC PIPE: Holden won Bathurst and the PM gave permission to tow vessel to a place undetermined yet|
|38z||SUNKS becoming agitated as the current course and swell means we are taking on water. 1.13M of water and increasing|
|36z||contacting Parliament on crisis|
The interference of senior officials of Defence and PMC in the daily operations of the Australian Defence Force is unprecedented. However, also unprecedented is the way in which senior officials of Defence then attempted to not only disguise their astonishing behaviour but conspired with the Federal Coalition Government in an attempt to protect their political position. Perhaps the most obvious examples can be found with Navy Chief Vice Admiral David Shackleton, Admiral Chris Barrie, Rear Admiral Geoffrey Smith and Department of Defence Secretary, Dr. Allan Hawke.
The allegation that on October 7 asylum seekers threw their children overboard was heavily publicised at the time of the supposed event. The Prime Minister claimed that he couldn't 'comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard' and the Minister for Immigration was distributing photos said to be of asylum seekers having jumped into the sea. However, when Navy Chief Vice Admiral David Shackleton disembarked HMAS Adelaide his view was that there had only ever been a supposed threat to throw children overboard.
Admiral Shackleton's subsequent actions were disreputable. The inquiry was told that Vice Admiral David Shackleton had acted on advice from the office of the Minister for Immigration when he two days later changed his dockside statement and in support of the Minister for Immigration suggested that children had been thrown overboard in an attempt to force the Navy to rescue them.
Other senior members of the Australian Defence Force such as Admiral Chris Barrie also endorsed such claims. Early on October 10 verbal advice from HMAS Adelaide suggesting that no children were thrown overboard was passed up the chain of command and a same day briefing from Strategic Command to PMC counselled that there was no indication that children had been thrown overboard. Undoubtedly, by October 11 Admiral Chris Barrie understood the story to be untrue. However, whilst Admiral Barrie is said to have alerted the Minister for Immigration to the untruth of the matter, Admiral Barrie never sought to correct the public record. Indeed, in a politically charged move Admiral Barrie gave misleading evidence to the senate inquiry on February 22 where he said
'But I have to say, in all, that I was never persuaded myself that there was compelling evidence that the initial report of the commanding officer was wrong. And I never sought to recant that advice that I originally gave to the minister.' (Check Hansard)
Late February evidence forced Admiral Barrie to reverse his statements and make clear that there was never any evidence to support the allegation that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard. Admiral Barrie later resigned from his position.
Maritime Commander, Rear Admiral Geoffrey Smith followed a similar course of inappropriate action in relation to SIEV X. At a public hearing in early April the Maritime Commander testified that the first he knew of SIEV X was his receipt of advice from Coast Watch on October 22 that indicated SIEV X was overdue and presumed sunk. Indeed, Rear Admiral Geoffrey smith reiterated his statement in a letter to the editor on April 16.
'the first the Navy knew that SIEV X had sailed was when advised through the search and rescue organisation in Canberra on October 22 that this vessel might have floundered in the vicinity of Sunda Strait'. (Check letter to the editor)
However, the Maritime Commander's story began to unravel when Rear Admiral Bonser was forced to make contact with, and advise Rear Admiral Gates of the inconsistencies in their recollections of events regarding SIEV X. Notably, the evidence that Bonser later gave before the inquiry contradicted that of the Maritime Commander, eventually forcing the Maritime Commander to clarify his position in a letter to the Committee. Notably, minutes of the Prime Ministers People Smuggling Taskforce further contradicted the evidence that the Maritime Commander gave before the Committee, indicating that SIEV X had previously been known and followed by Defence as SIEV 8. Notably, Defence Secretary, Dr. Alan Hawke, in answering questions at the Press Club, later refuted the claim that SIEVX was ever known as SIEV 8.
Indeed, Defence Secretary Dr. Allan Hawke was the first to admit to the Committee that he had made an "error of judgement" in failing to reveal that the Federal Coalition Government had mislead the Australian people in relation to the children overboard affair. Although Dr Hawke did claim to have been responsible for the Department alerting the Minister for Immigration to the falsity of photographs of asylum seekers being thrown into the sea, Dr Hawke stated before the inquiry that
'with the advantage of hindsight, I have asked myself whether I could or should have taken a more active involvement ... I have a responsibility and accountability to the Minister. That underscores that I should have written to the Minister.'
In a Westminster system of Government, Department Secretary, Dr. Allan Hawke must assume responsibility second only to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, for the actions and behaviour of the officers of Defence. Hence, it follows that Dr. Hawke should have assumed responsibility for all of the inconsistencies and contradictions within his Department. Dr. Hawke should have assumed responsibility for all of the inconsistencies and contradictions in the children overboard affair, particularly those amongst his most senior officials. Dr. Hawke was correct to offer his resignation, but Dr. Hawke should have stood aside irrespective of the Ministers lack of desire to accept it.
It is obvious that the most senior of Defence officials were aware that the claims that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard were untrue. It is also obvious that amongst the most senior of Defence officials more is known about the ill fated SIEV X and its 353 passengers that subsequently drowned. What is not obvious is what continues to motivate those officials to protect the political position of the Federal Coalition government and in doing so attract criticism and ridicule towards their personnel. However, what must be understood is why the Federal Coalition Government ultimately sought to hide the truth from the Australian people. The reality is that on the dawn of a federal election the Coalition government did not want to know the truth. The Coalition Government clearly manipulated the circumstances of people seeking asylum in Australia for electoral gain. The Coalition government has sought to justify war on the brutal regimes of Afghanistan and now Iraq, however when the people of these very nations have sought asylum from such brutality the Coalition Government has promoted these people as having values inconsistent with Australians and not the sort of people welcome in Australia. The Prime Minister claimed on radio that:
"It doesn't speak volumes for some of the people on the vessel - suggestions that children thrown over board ...Its not within my frame of comprehension that people who are genuine refugees would throw their people into the seas. I don't want in this country people who are prepared, if those reports are true, to throw their children overboard. And that kind of emotional blackmail is very distressing .... but we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated by this.
The Prime Minister made such statements in a blatant attempt to win with the constituency. The Report of the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident and the Odgers Report addresses the varied ways in which the Office of the Minister for Immigration sought to influence the flow of information both to the public and to the Committee. However it does not adequately address the way in which the Prime Minister sought to manage the issue of asylum seekers in a way that would determine the best possible political outcome for his government.
At noon on Monday October 8 the Prime Minister announced the dissolution of the House of Representatives and that an election for the House of Representatives and half the Senate would be held on Saturday November 10. On this same day a MINUTE attaching the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet GUIDANCE ON CARETAKER CONVENTIONS was circulated throughout the Department of Defence stating that the Department was expected to move into caretaker period meaning that:
Following the dissolution, the Government assumes a "caretaker" role and avoids:
However, the strategic directions that resulted from the Prime Ministers People Smuggling Taskforce were a clear violation of the Prime Ministers very own "caretaker convention". Clearly the Prime Minister disregarded his own convention to gain political mileage.
However, the Prime Minister didn't just neglect the "caretaker convention" and authorise several major strategic decisions regarding the way in which asylum seekers were to be handled by Defence. The Prime Minister deliberately distorted the facts so that the situation would favour him politically. It is known that on October 7 the Minister for Immigration informed the Prime Minister that he had made a media statement that children had been thrown overboard. Further, it is also known that an 'options paper' prepared by the People Smuggling Taskforce, including the statement 'passengers throwing their children into the sea' was presented to the Prime Minister later that evening. However, by October 10 Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Max Moore-Wilton, and the Prime Ministers International adviser had been provided with further information from the People Smuggling Taskforce that included a footnote suggesting that there was
'no indication that children had been thrown o/board. It is possible that this did occur....'.
Indeed, talking points forwarded to the Prime Ministers International Adviser for the Prime Ministers use that same day did not include the statement that children were thrown overboard. Simply, the talking points alluded to a possibility that some asylum seekers could have been thrown, or may have jumped, overboard. When pressed for evidence the Prime Minister suggested on radio:
As to the question of evidence ... I'll make some inquiries and see what evidence can be made available... I have been provided with no information since then that would cause me to doubt it.
Photographs were quickly produced but just as quickly they were recognised as being of Defence personnel rescuing asylum seekers off a sinking ship and not of children having been thrown overboard. The Prime Minister knew that his government had provided no real evidence to support their continued claim. Notably however, it was not until a month later, only days prior to the Federal election that the Prime Minister's international adviser attempted to obtain some genuine evidence. Significantly he contacted his own Department whom advised him that there wasn't any. The supposed video evidence was known at this stage to be inconclusive but in the absence of any other corroborating material the Government sought to release the videos in time for the midday news on November 8. That same day the Prime Minister appeared at the National Press Club again reiterating his position:
I don't regret saying, I should go back and have a look at exactly what was said, but I don't regret ever saying that people who throw their children overboard are not welcome in Australia ... Well in my mind there is no uncertainty....
By November 12, two days after the Federal Coalition Government was returned to power, it became evident that the only basis for the claim that children were thrown overboard was ministerial statements. It is self evident that the Prime Minister used the children overboard affair to secure the un-winnable election.
What is further disturbing is that when the Federal Parliament decided to conduct an inquiry into the affair the Prime Minister, despite initially declaring that he would cooperate, refused to support the parliamentary process and indeed inhibited its effective implementation. This is evident in the fact that the Prime Minister explicitly stated that only MOPS staff would be banned from the inquiry yet as it transpired key witness such as Rear Admiral Gates were not allowed to testify. Further evidence is that the Assistant Secretary of Prime Ministers department social policy branch, Jennifer Bryant, was heavied by the Prime Minister as well as the Prime Ministers International adviser and Secretary of Department. Jennifer Bryant conceded that in an "accidental" meeting in the Prime Ministers office she was given an "impression" that she should not be forthcoming in her evidence to the Senate.
What was also disturbing was that the Prime Ministers blatant disregard for the Federal Parliament and the constituents who place him there became evident in his response to the ill-fated SIEV X that sunk at sea with 353 asylum seekers drowning. The Prime Minister attempted to disguise his response to SIEV X behind claims that there was a concerted campaign to
'denigrate and besmirch the reputation of the Royal Australian Navy'
However, it is self evident that the personnel of the Royal Australian Navy carry out their duty with absolute integrity. What remain unclear is exactly how the vessel came to sink and how hundreds of innocent people came to drown in the ocean when Australian intelligence had been following the vessel and had expected its arrival. Disappointingly the inquiry was not able to produce any certain answers. However, simply the inconsistencies in the Prime Ministers media interviews, such as those below, suggest that some where someone knew more about the ill fated vessel.
(J) Do you now accept that the boat most likely sunk in international waters?
(PM) Well there remains conflicting evidence about that. But look I haven't made a considered study of it in the last few days and I'm not going to go beyond that.
(J) Mr Howard, on the same issue, given that we did have in place the most extensive surveillance cordon we've ever had in position in that area are you surprised that we didn't see this boat coming, didn't know it had sunk, didn't know where it was...?
(PM) No, I'm not surprised of that particularly given that all the information was that it sank in an area near the Sunda Strait and the Sunda Strait, as I understand it passes between Java and Sumatra. And the information I had was that it was in the Indonesian Search and Rescue zone.
(J) But the information that the People Smuggling Taskforce had that it was in international waters.
(PM) But the Indonesian search and rescue zone as I understand these things to operate does include international waters.
The only clearest fact with respect to SIEV X is that it was politically convenient for the Prime Minister if it disappeared.