Take a stand!

Take a look at the pdf image of page one of today’s Herald (it’s halfway down the right hand column of smh home page (there’s also a low resolution version). What do the three stories have in common?

At first glance, doom on all fronts – local, federal, international.

* The Liverpool mayor, ex Labor police minister and NSW Labor Right member George Paciullo, stands aside, as does big man in small pond, Canterbury Leagues Club president Gary McIntyre, amid kickback/conflict of interest/nepotism scandals over a development called Oasis, designed to deliver Canterbury 1000 pokies to fleece the poor.

* A report to the world’s 22 richest countries leaked on the eve of the Johannesburg earth summit (the one Howard can’t be bothered attending) that the world has lost 10 percent of its forests in the last ten years, helping to escalate global warming, that we’ll need 30 percent more fresh water by 2020, that less than 0.1 percent of the average income of the rich countries finds its way to poor ones, and that donations for environment protection and basic social services has plummeted from 35 percent of aid 10 years ago to less than 15 percent. We’re wiping out species of plants and animals with glee and global energy use will rise by 50 percent over the next 18 years.

* Asylum seeker Sharid Qureshi has been charged $26,460 – $130 a night – for his stay in the Maribyrnong detention centre, where he slept in a dorm with no door, was banned from having sex, endured a toilet with no door, two hour queues for a shower and one towel for the entire detention period.

Life’s a bitch, our leaders are stuffed, and there’s nothing we can do about it, right? World “leaders” are incapable of looking after our planet, our federal “leaders” treat the poor and disenfranchised like shit, and the locals we elect to look after our backyard and our footie clubs are burning our interests for self-interest. But wait.

Two courageous, persistent old-fashioned Herald journos Anne Davies and Kate McClymont broke the back of the Canterbury/Liverpool Council scandal with hard work and rolled gold leaks. Who leaked? Who knows? Maybe someone who wanted to make a killing and got frozen out. Maybe someone who’d had enough of the stench of it all. This is journalism at its finest, in the public interest. And the Herald is fighting for a constituency not traditionally its own – residents of Western Sydney. Clearly the competition, the Daily Telegraph, has been happy doing the cheap and easy tabloid thing rather than the hard yards in their heartland. And the Herald has let traditional investigative journalists do a job journalism has been gradually retreating from for a long time – holding the insiders accountable on behalf of the people they’re ripping off. In this case the Fast Bucks Development Club, and the Let’s Pretend Sport Isn’t Big Business Club.

There’s more – a wonderful tale of Canterbury footie club members realising the power is theirs to grab. They collected signatures to a petition at the Canberra Raiders game on Sunday – even Raiders fans signed it! – to force McIntyre’s resignation.

“McIntyre must go. We only need 100 Bulldog members’ signatures to call an extraordinary general meeting for the dismissal of McIntyre, and we’ve got 230,” said Michael Taouk, 27, of Redfern. A group of club members seizing their power circled Canterbury footie club yesterday to deliver the petition to someone with power. They got results. McIntyre walked out and resigned.

Down to bottom left of page one. Scientists and academics who’ve stayed true to science and the academy and refused to be bought and sold by big corporate players, and countless non-government organisations led and supported by activists around the world committed to change. For all its faults, the UN, in finding space for NGOs and daring to paint a big picture, is looking the powerful in the eye and telling them the truth. Not that they’ll listen, until they really, really have to. But the fightback has begun.

Bottom right. There’s pro-refugee groups around the country visiting asylum seekers in detention, raising money to defend them in court, holding rallies to commemorate the Tampa, proclaiming their beliefs with car stickers and signatures on petitions. People power means Julian Burnside QC and other lawyers determined to insist to the bitter end that every person in Australia has human rights and the benefit of our legal norms can take the government to Court on behalf of Mr Qureshi. Burnside will argue that the accommodation bill is unconstitutional.

So you can read page one two ways. Why not choose the latter? It’s an empowering feeling. Take a risk and take a stand. It might even be fun!


I just can’t get Labor’s close-down of the children overboard inquiry out of my head. (See SMH Connect, And the winner is…, and for the case against the reluctant witnesses and the damage Labor’s cave-in will do to our democracy What servants are for, June 27).

Labor Senate leader and chief inquiry prosecutor John Faulkner has all sorts of private excuses for what Labor has done – the Senate would have to put public servants in jail if they refused to obey subpoena, Reith wouldn’t tell the truth anyway, blah blah blah, but one fact stands out like a very, very sore thumb. NOTHING IN WRITING!

Webdiary is a forum where Faulkner can write at whatever length he likes a defence of the shut down in the certain knowledge that I’d publish it in full. He hasn’t even told the public in a statement why Labor’s spat the dummy and delivered the Government a blistering win and accountability a crushing blow. Nothing.

Maybe that’s because Labor hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

One example. Prime Minister and Cabinet senior officer Michael Potts has been twice scheduled to give evidence on his role in his subordinate, Brendon Hammer, calling a meeting with Commander Stefan King on what he might say about the fact that he briefed Hammer on the fraudulent photos within two days of their release by Reith. Potts has been postponed, now let off, yet his story is totally at odds with that of Hammer. We’re talking allegations of witness tampering here, folks. And we’re talking about PMC head Max Moore-Wilton’s responsibility for failures of administration in his department. Why the back-down, John?

Another example. There is a precedent for putting the hard word on a government staffer to give evidence to a Senate committee, and it was set by the government when Paul Keating was Prime Minister. The Liberals wanted to quiz David Busting on the spending and workings of ANIMALS, Labor’s propaganda arm. Labor said no, citing the so-called “convention” of big-party convenience against staffers being called. The Liberals – led by the now Senate leader and defence minister Robert Hill, the bloke who’s banning everyone he can think of who might damage the government from giving evidence – got the Senate to order Epstein to turn up. This is the precursor to a subpoena. The Government caved, Epstein appeared.

Yet Faulkner and co haven’t even sought a Senate order against Reith, his advisers Scrafton, Hampton and Hendy, a mere administrative assistant in Reith’s office called Lisa who handled the notorious captions of the fraudulent photos, and even the head of the defence task force formed to help the inquiry, Admiral Raydon Gates.

Why not call the government’s bluff? Why not release the independent report on the case to answer of Reith and Co when it comes in and dare them to clear their names? Why not, after releasing that report, ask health minister Brendon Nelson why he employs Hampton as his spin doctor when Hampton won’t deign to clear his name of suggestions he helped mislead the Australian people? Scrafton is now a public servant in the defence department – why not pressure defence department head Alan Hawke to redeem himself on the children overboard fiasco and order his officer to give evidence or refer him to the Public Service Commission for possible disciplinary action? Why not ask the lobby group for manufacturers, ACCI, why they’ve just employed Peter Hendy as their chief executive, when he refuses to answer questions on his activities on children overboard? Why not press defence industry company Tenix on why it employs Reith as its lobbyist and public spokesman given the case he’s got to answer that he lied to the Australian people? And Robert Hill on why he’s dealing with Reith on Defence? (See Craig Skehan’s brilliant story today on the Reith-Hill connection, and recall that Hill recently dubbed Reith “an honourable man”.)

And then there’s SIEV-X. There is no justification of any sort for Hill telling Gates he can’t appear. Gates is the new chief of navy. As task force chief he reviewed all the intelligence on SIEV-X. His evidence is vital. He made public comment on the matter recently. Why not suggest a Senate order for him to appear? And why not recall Admiral Geoffrey Smith, just retired, to explain himself? After all, the head of the Prime Minister’s task force, Jane Halton, who mentioned SIEV-X in passing in her evidence, was recalled for a detailed look at the matter when it became important. Smith mentioned SIEV-X in passing in his evidence, then got blown out of the water by Admiral Bonser – surely he’s got questions to answer?

What’s the problem, John? No guts? An untidy fit with Labor’s latest scheme to restore a shred of political credibility to a clapped-out outfit? Principle zero, as usual? Webdiary would love to publish your reasons for Labor pulling out. Are you game?

Hill raises no objections to Reith advising Tenix

By Craig Skehan, Defence Correspondent

August 27 2002

The Defence Minister, Robert Hill, says he has no objections to his predecessor, Peter Reith, advising defence industry company Tenix on its bid to buy the Government’s Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC).

This comes amid industry concerns over the value of Mr Reith’s knowledge from his time as defence minister before retiring at the last federal election.

At stake is a move away from competitive tendering and the future of billions of dollars worth of Government defence contracts, including the construction of new air warfare destroyers.

In an interview with the Herald, Senator Hill argued that advice Mr Reith now gave to Tenix was an internal company matter and not one for the Government.

He said the only restriction should be in relation to specific contract details of which Mr Reith would have had knowledge from his period as minister. However, one industry source told the Herald it was clear that the main reason Tenix had engaged Mr Reith was because of his previous government involvement in relation to the future of naval shipbuilding.

The shipbuilding industry is involved in intensive lobbying as federal cabinet prepares to make crucial decisions on a rationalisation program centred on the sale of the ASC.

Tenix head Paul Saltieri has been reported as expressing confidence that the Government will choose his company to acquire the ASC and it will then become Australia’s major naval shipping industry operation for decades to come.

Senator Hill has not ruled out building a wider consortium around the sale of the ASC which could include Tenix’s main rival, the formerly Government-owned ADI, as well as smaller firms.

However, the minister has also left open the option of the cabinet appointing Tenix or another company as the lead player, through acquisition of the ASC, which would sub-contract work to so-called “second tier” companies.

At a media conference on July2, Senator Hill said he had no problem if Mr Reith was “giving general advice on strategic matters” to Tenix.

However, Senator Hill added at the time: “I would not expect him to be involved in contracts in which he played a significant role in the development of the framework for those contracts.”

Before retiring, Mr Reith was engaged in drawing up policy proposals on naval shipbuilding rationalisation and the dumping of competitive tenders in favour of so-called “strategic partnerships”.

A spokesman for Tenix said last night that Mr Reith was now “providing strategic advice on issues relating to defence industries” to the company, but not on individual contracts.

Options for the future of the shipbuilding industry are canvassed in a report presented to Senator Hill by his department last week and he is due to take a submission to cabinet next month.

In the interview with the Herald, Senator Hill was asked about Mr Reith’s consultancy and the argument that he should not be advising Tenix on the Government’s forthcoming decisions on naval shipbuilding.

“No, I would say what he advises Tenix is between him and Tenix,” Senator Hill said.

The Green manifesto

I call myself a ‘reluctant Green’, forced to vote for them for the first time to take a stand on refugee policy. So what did people like me get for our vote? The first Green Senator for NSW, Kerry Nettle, gave her maiden speech last week.

Senator NETTLE (New South Wales)

I revel in the opportunity to deliver my first speech during a debate about bargaining fees, where people on this side of the chamber rise to speak in the defence of Australian workers being able to organise collectively in the workplace.

I start by paying my respects to the Ngun(n)awal people, the traditional owners of this land. I acknowledge the pain and the suffering that so many Indigenous Australians have suffered as a result of the European invasion of this country. I acknowledge that the price for the prosperity and the peace that we enjoy today has been overwhelmingly borne by the first Australians. On behalf of the people that I represent in this parliament, I say sorry for these past injustices.

The Greens look forward to continuing to work with Indigenous Australians to address both past and current discrimination. Only when Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians work together can the true potential of our multicultural society be realised.

The Greens bring a vision to politics in Australia and around the world that is based on four core principles: social and economic justice, ecological sustainability, peace and non-violence, and grassroots democracy. Communities in Australia and overseas are increasingly turning towards the Greens because we offer an optimistic and caring vision for the future.

People are sick of a lack of choice at election time. They are sick of an emphasis on self-interest and the predictable surrender to the power of profit. Increasingly, there is a need to restate the fact that we are not simply a collection of individuals, but people who live in a society where a sense of community strengthens our connection with humanity and the environment on which we depend.

As a young activist concerned about issues such as public transport and proposals to extend the tragedy of uranium mining in Kakadu National Park, I became interested in the Greens because I saw the Greens as a political party that was made up of community activists – people who were interested in the same sorts of issues as I was and who brought an activist approach to the work that they did in parliament and also in the community.

I define this activist approach as a belief that progressive social change is not only possible but vitally necessary. I see this approach reflected in the work of Greens MPs in chambers across this country and on every continent.

Greens MPs are community activists first, before they enter this chamber, and they bring that energy, passion and commitment to their parliamentary work.

History shows us that social change does not start in chambers like this; it starts in the hearts and the minds of committed and passionate individuals. It builds strength on the streets and in the community, and only then can it enter this chamber. I recognise and I celebrate the symbiotic relationship between activism inside and outside parliament, and I look forward to playing my part in achieving progressive social change through the work that I do in this chamber with other Greens MPs and the work that I continue to do in the community.

The enormous array of community activists that I have had the opportunity to work with over the last few years has been a constant inspiration to me. The commitment of individuals working in local resident action groups across the country truly reaffirms ones belief in community spirit.

Every weekend, countless Australians engage in activities in their local areas and people daily in the management of their land show that they care and recognise the need to live sustainably with the planet. The dedication from grassroots communities on environmental issues is not in question, but we are yet to see genuine commitment from the government and corporations to addressing the environmental crises that we all face.

I would like to draw this chambers attention to the shameful fact that Australia has the highest land clearing rate of any developed nation. Over 500,000 hectares of native vegetation are destroyed in Queensland each year. In my home state of New South Wales, agribusiness is bulldozing rare woodlands and wetlands with no intention of complying with federal or state legislation. This archaic approach to environmental management must be stopped, and the government must play a key role in ensuring that this happens. For every tree that community or government programs plant, 100 more are bulldozed.

The community cannot respond to this unprecedented disaster alone. We need national legislation to end land clearing, especially in key areas such as the Murray Darling Basin.

But we must not stop there. We need to go further and embark on a program of land rehabilitation. This means financial incentives to assist farmers in making the transition to sustainable agricultural practices. The ecological vandalism that is inherent in our current land clearing patterns is part of a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly familiar to all of us. It is part of the economic funda-mentalism that has blighted much of Australian society and rages now at a global level through the destructive policies of the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Again, it is the tireless work of community activists who are attempting to halt this ever increasing drive towards the corporate free-for-all that has misleadingly been dubbed globalisation. This process is, in fact, not globalisation but centralisation – the centralisation of power into the hands of a small group of corporate elites. There is nothing inherently global about this transfer of economic and cultural power.

A diverse multitude of people have taken to the streets to raise their voices against this corporate takeover, and they look on as vitally important decisions are taken out of the hands of representative, democratically elected parliaments and placed into the hands of unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats and CEOs of transnational corporations.

Many people are outraged about this loss of democratic control over decisions that affect their lives. This is an issue about which parliament should be ecstatic. People are actually jumping up and down about the importance of parliament and yet our legislatures are complicit in the silencing of the electors voice.

The rise of corporate globalisation is the greatest threat to our current democratic systems, and the increasing role of corporations in our governments and our democratic institutions amounts to nothing less than a creeping coup detat.

At the moment on the horizon sits the General Agreement on Trade in Services. The neo-liberal ideologues have repackaged and expanded the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which was defeated by community pressure in 1998. The new brand name is General Agreement on Trade in Services. It is back on the international trade negotiating table, to which you and I are not invited.

The Greens are a part of that same international community movement that defeated the MAI in 1998 and we are back preparing to defeat those same ideas as they appear in the General Agreement on Trade in Services. GATS is a treaty which seeks to bind national governments to deregulating and privatising their public services.

Public ownership has historically proven to be the only way to ensure that essential services are provided to all citizens in an equitable way. This is done by providing the service on the basis of social need rather than trying to pursue private profits. The Greens recognise that the seemingly endless pursuit of privatisation is a form of social theft on a grand scale, with the transferring of wealth from the citizen to the already rich.

Decisions that are made on trade issues have a very real effect on people’s everyday lives. Yet this government continues to shroud these decisions in secrecy. The Australian government is going to the next round of negotiations at the World Trade Organisation behind an absolute veil of secrecy. It will not allow this parliament or the Australian people to know which of our public services it intends to trade away. Final decisions that affect our basic services will be made in the cabinet room or perhaps in the corporate boxes – but not in this parliament.

We already know that the government intends to sacrifice Telstra at enormous cost to the bush. And from leaked EU documents we know that it is under pressure to trade away Australia Post and our water services. But we do not know at the moment whether health and education are also at the top of the government’s hit list. We know that this government favours private education and private health over the provision of these public services, but does this government intend to make public funding of schools and hospitals effectively illegal by labelling it as an unfair subsidy under WTO trade rules?

GATS is designed also to remove the rights of nation states to set environmental, labour, local content or human rights standards. This will lead us to a situation where it becomes impossible for Australia not to accept an international nuclear waste dump.

Australia has the opportunity to take a progressive role, to show some leadership and some courage as a responsible global citizen not only on trade issues but also in relation to international conflicts. Right now, more than at any time in our recent history, it is vitally important that we speak out in the name of peace and that we articulate a message of true global justice that is based on equity and not on power.

It is nearly a year since we were all horrified by the attacks on Washington and New York. The time immediately after September 11 could have been, and still can be, an opportunity to reflect calmly and rationally on the reasons behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre. We need an international effort that recognises the growing inequities between the haves and the have-nots of this world and then seeks to redress these imbalances. Instead, we have seen an arrogant unilateralism from the United States through their so-called war on terrorism and the response of the Australian government has been sycophantic. In trying to out-swagger the cowboys in Washington, we have only succeeded in making ourselves look foolish at a time when we could have and should have been a calming voice in our allies’ ear.

A war on Iraq cannot be justified. The hypocrisies and the inconsistencies of such an aggressive policy are obvious for all to see. We do not live in George Bush’s comic book world of goodies and baddies. Trading with oppressive regimes is commonplace, and more weapons of mass destruction are developed and held illegally in Western countries than in any axis of evil. A war would also be blatantly naive in a political sense. It would be tantamount to throwing a Molotov cocktail into the Middle East peace process.

On a practical level, armed intervention simply will not achieve its stated aim of establishing democracy, and it is even more unlikely to achieve its strategic aim of ensuring total US dominance in the region. It is certainly not going to win any peace, love and freedom for the people of the US or the people of Iraq.

A war on Iraq would be illegal under international law; it would also be blatantly inhumane. The Greens will continue to fight any extension of this so-called war on terrorism. We recognise that we need a program for peace, not a rush to war. The first step in this program for peace is for John Howard, Alexander Downer and George Bush to step back from their warmongering rhetoric. There is a place for weapons inspections in all countries that develop weapons of mass destruction, but there will be no lasting solution in Iraq or similar countries until we restore their dignity and their autonomy so that their people can pursue democracy and prosperity like any other nation.

The Iraqi people must be given back not only the right but also the capacity to decide their own rulers, without intervention from the United States, who firstly armed and supported Saddam Hussein and who are now only interested in controlling oil supplies, not in achieving democracy in Iraq. We need an international effort to rebuild Iraqi society and infrastructure, which was deliberately destroyed to undermine the civilian population. Sanctions that have caused immeasurable suffering must be lifted. Peaceful solutions will always seem more complex than a simple attack, but it is only through peaceful solutions that we can achieve long-term success.

Of course, these solutions do not apply only to Iraq. It is our responsibility to address the appalling inequalities wherever they occur around the world, and the way to do so is through support for local communities and their organisations so that they can determine their visions of democracy for their country.

I had the honour recently of meeting a 24-year-old Afghan woman by the name of Tahmina. Tahmina and her organisation travel around the world speaking about the need to liberate the women of Afghanistan. They have the solutions to the problems that affect their everyday lives. They suggest a range of measures, including ending the international financing of fundamentalist schools on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I have not met the Tahminas of Iraq, but these are the voices that we should be listening to in the current debate – the local voices that have the solutions to the problems in their community.

I find it constantly inspiring to be around so many people, Greens and others, who believe that progressive social change is not only necessary but is possible, and who work so hard to achieve that end. I would like to say thank you to all of the Greens campaigners and supporters who have made it possible for me to be part of striving for this change, not only in the community but now also in the parliament.

Social change has always happened because of committed and hardworking individuals working together to achieve change. That is how we will achieve change now.

Together with my colleagues inside and outside parliaments around the world, I am proud to be part of a movement that is about so much more than opposing the self-interested and profit-oriented views of the major parties. Our movement is about vision, responsibility and an optimism for the future. I look forward to working with Bob Brown to present the Greens vision in this parliament and to building a movement that strives for a more just, equitable and sustainable society here in Australia and around the world.


Labor Senator JACINTA COLLINS responded: “I would also take this opportunity to congratulate Senator Nettle on a brilliant first speech. There were some things in her contribution that I would obviously not accept, such as that the Labor Party is self-interested and profit motivated, but I think there are many areas of common interest that we can share and look forward to.

SIEV-X: mystery unsolved

Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin, the man who single-handedly got the fate of SIEV-X onto the public agenda, gave a speech on the issue to a conference in Sydney on Saturday called “The Tampa: One year on”.

Here it is, a testament to the disgraceful decision by the unthrown children inquiry to terminate hearings without recalling the man then in charge of Operation Relex, Admiral Geoffrey Smith, to explain his failure to search for SIEV-X.

The story of SIEV X

By Tony Kevin

A chain of consequence links three events:

* The Tampa’s rescue of 436 asylum seekers from “Palapa” on 26 August 2001, and the Australian government’s failed attempt to force Captain Arne Rinnan to take them away from Australia

* HMAS Adelaide’s two-day encounter with the people of SIEV 4 on 7- 8 October

* The tragedy of 19 October, when 353 asylum seekers including 150 women and children drowned in international waters south of Java on its way to Christmas Island. Only 44 survived the sinking of this grossly overloaded and almost certainly sabotaged boat, now known as SIEV X.

After Tampa, the Howard Government resolved to stop any more asylum seekers landing at Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef. Detection of boats was never a problem – 94% of boats were detected under the old system of interception and taking into custody. Howard’s challenge to the ADF was to make people go back. The new strategy had been planned for months – Tampa was merely the trigger.

The Government ordered the Navy under Operation Relex, the new border protection plan announced on 2 September, to deter and repel asylum seeker boats beyond Australian islands’ 12-mile territorial seas. Navy ships were initially directed to use all means short of sinking boats to force them to turn back: loudhailer warnings, then repeated volleys of cannon and machinegun fire across the bows, then dangerous close-quarters blocking maneouvres, finally aggressive boarding actions by armed assault teams: all intended to terrify asylum seekers into returning to Indonesia.

Such tactics of intense psychological warfare failed, because asylum seekers had the courage to disable their boats, trusting that in the final analysis Australian sailors would not stand by and watch them drown.

An angry Howard government, forced in the end to accept HMAS Adelaide taking the disabled and sinking SIEV 4 into tow back towards Christmas Island, ordered that the 223 people including 116 women and children be kept on board their unseaworthy vessel during a 24 hour tow. This criminally irresponsible order contradicted every safety of life at sea principle our naval officers ever learned, but such was the power of politics over navy ethics that the order was carried out without question. As Commander Banks testified, a primary mission aim at this stage was to keep the people on their boat – to take them off before their boat sank would have been mission failure. (Certain Maritime Incident inquiry Hansard pages 180-2, 186-7).

The boat finally foundered on 8 October with only an hours warning. In a dangerous emergency rescue from the sea, it is a miracle that nobody drowned. The most important dimension of the “Certain Maritime Incident”, just as important as the cynical falsification of rescue photographs – has been curiously ignored by almost every commentator. For 24 hours, the Operation Relex command were so contemptuous of their responsibility for the lives of these people that Banks was required to keep them on board a wrecked and unseaworthy vessel, instead of prudently moving them to the Adelaide. The lack of concern for human life is significant, in the light of what happened with SIEV-X twelve days later.

Adelaide’s encounter with SIEV 4 shattered Operation Relexs deter-and-repel border protection strategy. The outcome proved to prospective asylum seekers that as long as they held their nerve after interception by the Navy, they would not be left to drown. The Indonesian Government was not allowing forced towbacks of vessels. The People Smuggling Taskforce in Prime Ministers Department reported on 7 October:

“A strong signal that the people smugglers have succeeded in transporting a group to Australia could have disastrous consequences. There are in the order of 2500 potential unauthorised arrivals in the pipeline in Indonesia awaiting transport, therefore this should be avoided at all costs.”

But then, the sinking of SIEV-X on 19 October changed everything. SIEV voyages dried up within days. The Indonesian Government – shocked at the damage to its vulnerable international standing of a sinking reported to have happened in Indonesian waters – decided almost overnight to accept forcible Australian Navy towbacks to Indonesia, as a humanitarian necessity. The Indonesian Foreign Minister announced he would host an anti-people smuggling conference in Bali. Two weeks later, a satisfied John Howard told Kerry OBrien in his election victory interview on 10 November that the flow of people had virtually stopped, and that this was “specifically attributable to the action we took on the Tampa “.

Howard added: ” Obviously the more difficult we make it, the less likely they are to come”.

Indeed. But the sinking of SIEV-X, not the Tampa episode, was the decisive turning point that both won the election for John Howard, and won his campaign to stop SIEVs coming. Because SIEV-X, not Tampa, stopped the boats coming. It sent a terrifying deterrent message to asylum seekers: if you attempt to travel to Australia using people smugglers, you may well die on the way.

Australia seemed, at least according to John Howard on 23 and 24 October, to have entirely clean hands. Howard claimed emphatically that the boat sank in Indonesian waters: Australia was not responsible.

After five months of painstaking investigative work by the Senate Select Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident, there is now much public evidence that the Australian Government and its border protection agencies do not have clean hands in the sinking of SIEV-X. 2000 pages of Hansard testimony and furnished documents make this clear.

What remains to be seen now is what our public institutions – our Parliament, our political parties, our national media, and we the people of Australia will do with the highly disturbing truths that have already emerged about SIEV-X.

Whatever happens from here on, the community owes a huge debt to the patient yet persistent forensic interrogations by four Senators in particular: Peter Cook, John Faulkner, Jacinta Collins and Andrew Bartlett. We also are indebted to Senator George Brandis for his perhaps accidental contribution to public transparency, in pressing for a great deal of previously classified information about the scale and methods of Operation Relex to be made public. His initiative in April to have the Australian Defence Force (ADF) table details of 12 naval interceptions began a healthy process of public revelation of remarkable facts about Australian intelligence gathering, disruption activity, air surveillance and naval interception hitherto carefully concealed from the public.

Today’s paper has no room for a chronological account of how the truth of SIEV-X gradually emerged from a fog of government misinformation and deception. The story is fascinating at several levels:

* as a detective story, of how persistent probing into initially minor discrepancies in the public record gradually opened up huge cracks in successive official versions of truth;

* as a story of a battle of wits and wills, between Senators trying to unearth the truth and a Government Executive determined to resist proper processes of disclosure at every step of the way;

* as a story of a gross moral failure of compassion towards helpless men women and children who had effectively put their lives in the hands of Australias border protection authorities; a duty of care betrayed by those authorities.

This paper summarises where key matters of evidence stand. The Senate Committee has apparently decided not to call any more witnesses, but has been granted extra time probably until the end of September – to complete its report. I am submitting this paper to the Senate Committee.

A good way to flesh out the detail is to browse the fascinating SIEV X website, www.sievx.com, and to view the three SBS “Dateline” features on SIEV-X. There has been courageous newspaper coverage by Margo Kingston, Cameron Stewart and Kirsten Lawson.

We honor the dead of SIEV X and their grieving families if we learn the details of this story, and show our political leaders and media that we care about it.

The ill-fated voyage of SIEV X

Most of what we know comes from Don Greenlees detailed and well-based account in “The Australian” on 24 October 2001. SIEV-X left from Bandar Lampung in southern Sumatra before dawn on 18 October. It was grossly overloaded with over 400 people on a 19 metre boat. The overloading took place under armed duress by uniformed policemen. There was a large crack in the hull requiring passengers to bail from the outset. The engines failed once it got out into the Indian Ocean on 19 October, and it sank soon after at around 2 pm, Greenlees says some 50 kilometers south of the western tip of Java. Survivors spent 22 hours in the water before being picked up by an Indonesian fishing boat at midday on 20 October, and taken to Jakarta where they arrived on 22 October. They met world media on 23 October and it became a huge story.

This chronology and sinking location were broadly corroborated by survivor accounts and by coordinates given by fishermen to the Jakarta Harbourmaster of where they picked up the 44 survivors. This general location is supported by Committee testimony that the nearest navy ship Arunta was 150 miles from SIEV X (Admiral Geoffrey Smith’s 4 April testimony) and 67 nautical miles north of Christmas Island (Smith’s letter of 22 May). Both sets of data put SIEV-Xs sinking location in an area some 30 to 80 miles south of the western tip of Java well into international waters and well within Operation Relex’s air surveillance area.

Yet John Howard still sticks to his untenable original claim that SIEV-X sank in Indonesian waters. Senator Hill has claimed variously either that we don’t know where it sank, or that it sank in or near Sunda Strait, by implication in Indonesian waters. Jane Halton, who headed the People Smuggling Taskforce in Prime Minister’s Department, says that the difference between territorial seas and Indonesia’s nominal search and rescue zone was never explained to her. She was questioned closely by Senators on 30 July as to how her Taskforce reconciled an intelligence report recorded in its minutes on 23 October, saying that the boat was likely to have sunk in international waters, with the Prime Ministers emphatic statements on 23 and 24 October that it sank in Indonesian waters.

Why is there still so much official evasion and inconsistency on where the boat sank? And why the emphatic uncertainty still claimed by official witnesses over where the boat left from, and when it left? Especially when both the media and survivor accounts since 24 October have presented a pretty clear picture on these crucial matters, most remarkably, when the whole voyage chronology and sinking location is retrospectively confirmed in the Halton Taskforce minutes of 23 October. Why so much evasion of the truth, unless the system is still trying to hide something very important here probably to do with the receipt and handling of earlier intelligence on SIEV-X ?

The people smuggling disruption program

We have learned through Senate questioning of Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Immigration Department (DIMIA) witnesses about the existence of a “people smuggling disruption program”. It is managed by a joint AFP / DIMIA “People Smuggling Strike Team”, which operates out of Canberra and the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. The Strike Team is proud of achieving its desired outcomes, to disrupt and thereby discourage asylum seeker boat departures from Indonesia. Until recently the Teams existence was secret.

The disruption program is well funded. It operates through cultivating working-level liaison, nurtured by generous gifting, with selected areas of the Indonesian national police. It also relies on paid informants and intelligence operatives like Kevin Ennis, whose unusual activities were publicly scrutinised on two Channel Nine “Sunday” programs in February which led to Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee testimony by AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty on 19 February.

According to Keelty’s 11 July testimony, virtually ignored by our media, the disruption program involves such activities as monitoring when boats are about to leave and where from. Crews and passengers are then rounded up at the point of departure. Passengers are put into supervised United Nations agencies care. Clearly this was not done in the case of SIEV-X, whose life-threatening departure was not impeded.

We know from Taskforce minutes that a decision was taken around 12 October – soon after the Adelaide encounter – to “beef up” people smuggling disruption program activity in Indonesia. But was AFP actually in control of what Indonesian police and others in Indonesia were doing under the disruption program? For example, when Keelty was asked by Senator Cook whether AFP would know of or condone such disruptive activity as sabotaging engines, Keelty replied to the effect that AFP would not condone but would not necessarily know of such activities (Hansard pages 1810-1812).

Even before the tragedy of SIEV-X, it is noteworthy how frequently asylum seeker boats experienced engine failures (eg “Palapa”) during the short crossings to Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef. And of course there had been some – relatively unpublicised – earlier sinkings and disappearances of boats before SIEV-X. This could have reflected earlier disruption program activity.

On the basis of what is now known about the people smuggling disruption program – its objectives, resources and methods – it is a possible hypothesis that SIEV-Xs doomed voyage may have grown out of a beefed-up disruption program, at a time of urgent political need to halt decisively the flow of boats before this made a mockery of Howard’s election pledge to stop the boats coming.

This is not to say that such criminal sabotage was necessarily done with the connivance or aforeknowledge of Australian authorities in Indonesia. Maybe somebody on the Indonesian side might have been silently doing a favour to Australian colleagues, and only told them afterwards.

No more convincing alternative explanation has yet been offered for the ominous departure circumstances of SIEV-X. This makes the question of how intelligence reporting to Canberra about SIEV X was handled all the more important.

Handling of AFP intelligence reporting from Indonesia

The Committee during May learned much about intelligence reporting that came down to Canberra about the departure of SIEV-X. Initial claims in April official testimony, that nobody knew anything much about SIEV X until they saw news of its sinking on 23 October, were undercut by testimony from Coastwatch Head Rear Admiral Mark Bonser on 22 May, and by the possibly accidental release in early June of detailed summary minutes of the People Smuggling Taskforce in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Senators thereby ascertained that there had been six AFP reports from Indonesia on SIEV-X between 14 and 22 October. They learned also that SIEV-X (then designated as SIEV 8, until the Halton Taskforce concluded this boat had definitely sunk, when this number was transferred to another boat in the arrival series) was discussed in the Taskforce on at least six daily meetings, starting on 18 October.

Starting on 22 May, official testimony began to refer to many conflicting reports on SIEV-X: as a result of which it was claimed that nothing could be said conclusively at all about when it had left, where from, or even if it existed. The nature of evidence shifted dramatically, from claims of zero information to claims of an excess of conflicting information, as an explanation for why no safety of life at sea action was ever undertaken by Operation Relex.

Senators still confront a vital information black hole. There has been no testimony on the content of AFP reports sent down to Canberra regarding SIEV-X, between the reported time of its departure early on 18 October and the receipt in Jakarta of the one so far admitted intelligence report in the evening of 19 October, that was phoned through to Coastwatch in Canberra at 0930 on 20 October. What did the 18 October AFP report say?

AFP and DIMIA witnesses on 11 July firmly declined to give such information, both on grounds of classified intelligence and also that it could jeopardise upcoming possible legal proceedings against the alleged people smuggler Abu Quessai.

Keelty did testify that all the information that may have led to the conclusion that SIEV-X was in danger was not obtained by AFP until after SIEV-X sunk. So it would seem that if any intelligence operative or informant witnessed or was told about the manifestly unsafe departure of SIEV X in the early hours of 18 October, this was not passed to AFP until the evening of Friday 19 October. And yet we know there was an AFP report on 18 October. We just don’t know what was in it and how it was responded to.

In relation to the AFP intelligence report that came down on 20 October – which we only know about thanks to Admiral Bonser and which I will return to in a moment – Keelty declined for the same legal reasons to express a view on whether the AFP considered there might be a possible safety of life at sea situation.

Yet the Committee had already established from Bonser’s testimony (CMI Hansard page 1661 and supplementary letter) that this AFP report stated that a small and overcrowded boat had departed with over 400 people on board, and that some passengers had been unwilling to be boarded; and that an AFP liaison officer Kylie Pratt had conveyed a personal view to Bonser that the vessel may be subject to increased risk due to the numbers of people reportedly on board. It is still being claimed by official witnesses that despite the detail in this report, it did not say where SIEV-X had left from. Again, we see that strange obscurity.

During those two crucial days while SIEV-X was sailing south through Sunda Strait towards its doom, there was obviously some specific SIEV-X intelligence reaching Canberra. We know this from references to SIEV-Xs expected arrival in the People Smuggling Taskforce summary minutes from 18 October onwards, and from the fact that Australian authorities had expected SIEV-X to arrive at Christmas Island by Sunday 22 October. It therefore had to be known that SIEV-X had left on Thursday, the journey normally taking such boats three days.

If some Australian authorities knew by 18 October of the departure from Bandar Lampung on that day of a small and overcrowded vessel carrying over 400 people, why did such a report not trigger a Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) precautionary air search of the area of the Indian Ocean nearest to Sunda Strait, ie the northwest quarter of the Operation Relex air surveillance zone?

This question of official negligence of a SOLAS requirement is at the heart of the issue. Knowing more about the content of the AFP intelligence reports and how they were handled is now the key to unlocking the mystery.

We know that raw intelligence from AFP and DIMIA sources in Indonesia was normally “packaged” by the AFP/DIMIA Strike Team. This packaged product was normally then passed from the Strike Team to the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre (ASTJIC) for passing to Operation Relex.

Did the Strike Team suppress, or did they dilute beyond possible recognition of SOLAS implications, reports sent down from Indonesia prior to 20 October regarding SIEV-X, before such material was sent to ASTJIC and the Operation Relex command? Or did the Strike Team forward accurate and complete processed intelligence reports to ASTJIC, and thence to the Operation Relex command? Who is responsible for the SOLAS failure – AFP informants, the AFP/DIMIA Strike Team, ASTJIC, Operation Relex? We still don’t know.

But given Keelty’s stated legal constraints of the case against Abu Quessai, Committee Senators cannot now get a public answer. This situation, by preventing access to the truth on a key matter of accountability for the tragedy of SIEV-X, leaves the reputations of many agencies and persons under question. Will the final report leave these questions unanswered?

What did Operation Relex and NORCOM do?

The AFP 20 October report, phoned through to Bonser of Coastwatch by Kylie Pratt at 0930 on Saturday 20 October, was immediately passed on to ASTJIC. ASTJIC sent urgent signals to Operation Relex and to its northern field command, NORCOM.

But there, further action was frozen. According to documents provided by Senator Hill on 4 July, NORCOM on 20 October assessed that due to its overcrowding, the vessel would travel slowly and therefore might arrive after the initially expected arrival date of 21 October. On 22 October, NORCOM assessed that the vessel had returned to Java because of unfavourable weather and overcrowding.

So, incredibly and tragically, at no time did NORCOM ever order any SOLAS-oriented search for SIEV-X though it was in their search area. The RAAF Maritime Patrol Group Commander Philip Byrne testified on 30 July that the RAAF surveillance flight crews were told nothing on 20 October about the 20 October AFP report. He said they were briefed on the night of 20 October in preparation for the next days flight; but that briefing was so vague and watered-down that it did not trigger a SOLAS search on 21 October. All surveillance flights took place absolutely as normal, with no SOLAS adjustments to normal procedure. Byrne said a SOLAS search would have used different methods.

Flight charts provided by Senator Hill on 4 July show that on 19 October, ORION flight 1 made radar contact with what might well have been SIEV-X at 0919. ORION flight 2 made contact at 1930 with what might have been the wreckage of SIEV-X and the (widely reported by survivors) observing boats. But since there was, according to the records furnished by Senator Hill, no AFP intelligence about SIEV X available to NORCOM on 19 October, Orion crews did not know they should be looking for it.

Senators were unable to question the NORCOM command on its crucial decisions not to order a SOLAS-oriented air surveillance for SIEV-X on 19 or 20 October. Authors of the documents sent in by Senator Hill on 4 July have not been examined in public hearings of the Committee. Initially promised testimony by Admiral Raydon Gates, who had reviewed all the intelligence and has now replaced Admiral Smith as Chief of Navy, was blocked by Senator Hill despite repeated Committee requests for him to appear.

So where might the Senate report end up? I do not know. I know where I end up.

Here is Australias largest-ever maritime surveillance and naval interception program in the sea-air gap, supported in Indonesia by a major and intrusive people smuggling disruption program and a major intelligence operation.

The mission is to keep asylum seekers away from Australia. They are the enemy. Like all enemies in war, they must be dehumanised. They cannot be acknowledged as people. Until they arrive, until they require Jane Halton’s Committee to think about logistical issues like tents and food, they are just military abstractions – traces on a radar screen.

If they arrive, so be it. If they do not arrive, they have either turned back or they have sunk. Either way it does not matter, because they did not come here. So they are not our problem. Our safety of life at sea obligations do not apply to these people. We did not invite them to come to Australia. So we do not have to think of them as men women and children dying in the water. As long as we don’t see them or get a radio distress signal from them, we can ignore them.

I am curious as to how such attitudes became prevalent in Operation Relex and its supporting agencies. Did people have to be politically indoctrinated to this level of callousness, or did it grow naturally out of the situation? Was it there already in the ADF and administrative culture? What happened to our defence forces traditional decency and honour? When and how did our border protection agencies stop thinking of asylum seekers as fellow human beings for whom we had a natural duty of care?

Issues of Senate privilege

How should the Senate deal with repeated examples during this long enquiry of a deep lack of respect for its powers and responsibilities, from a Minister who is himself a senior Senator? The withholding of key witnesses like Admiral Gates; the manipulation of key information, eg the RAAF surveillance maps and Operation Relex data which were selectively leaked many days in advance to some media, so as to lessen their news impact when eventually tabled; the disparaging of the Committee’s role – where does this leave our fragile system of parliamentary scrutiny over an ever more powerful and arrogant political executive?

The role of the media

It is still not easy to interest major media in this story. Even after June, when there was already a well documented trail of unanswered questions and contradictions, there is still a disposition in some editorial offices to shy away from the subject. There seems a strange reluctance to confront this distasteful reality. The story may just be too frightening, in what it says to us about what our country is becoming.

I hope this might change when this Senate Committee submits its report. I hope the report will shock our nation. Even though the Committee has laboured under serious information denials, it by now has the wherewithal to produce a credible and deeply challenging report.

In my opinion, the challenge now before the Committee – which has done a heroic job to date – is this. Will its report clearly point to the large moral failures involved in SIEV-X, or will it attribute the tragedy basically to administrative failures: shortcomings in communications, divided command structures etc? I pray that it will take the former course.

SMH Connect

Hi. I had a wow of a holiday in Byron Bay after its annual writers festival, where the audience played the starring role. A great vibe at an Australian writers only event where 17,000 people turned up and got right into it. Cripes, I got my hope back! So a thank you to festival organiser Jill Eddington for the invite – I’ll be back next year in the audience.

It’s true what they say about Byron – magic happens. I’m even looking forward to the rest of the working year, whatever horrors it brings. Thanks to those who emailed to say they were missing Webdiary – it was a nice way to ease back in.

I’ve just sent Democrats name-game winner Gerry Orkin, a Canberran, his prize for Murray’s Darling Party- two autographed photos of Meg Lees’ central Australia sojourn to decide her future. We’ve put the six photos she sent us to chose from in Webdiary.

Today we did a pilot for what we hope will be a regular video chat show on smh.com.au, working title SMH Connect. I interviewed Herald investigative journo Kate McClymont on the blockbuster yarn she and Anne Davies broke on the Canterbury Bulldogs rugby league team – how they cheated and by how much, and the red hot development deal called ‘Oasis’ the club is into with the Liverpool council. It’s a classic expose of how Sydney does business (sport this ain’t). The interview is on the home page.

I’m hoping the video thing will have two strands. I’d like to interview Herald journos across the paper on hot news, hot comment and hot media trends. This way, you’ll get to know the journalists who work for you, our readers, and get an idea of what happens behind the scenes in the newsroom and how stories happen and why.

The second strand will be interviews (and maybe debates) on current issues with real people – including Webdiary contributors.

While producer Vanessa Wilson and tech-head Adrian Alback are tweaking and developing the technical stuff there’s little room for direct input from you, although we’re hoping that in time you’ll be able to ring in questions and talk direct to the talent. At the moment, it has to be prerecorded and processed before being posted – in time we hope to do it live.

I’ll interview Kate or Anne tomorrow around 1pm on the latest Doggiegate developments, so if you’ve if got a question email me before then. We’d love your ideas on content, presentation and a final name for the show.


My last entry before holidays, And the winner is … included a bitter rave on Labor closing down the unthrown children/SIEV-X inquiry. Several readers emailed Simon Crean to protest, and he’s distanced himself from the cave-in by claiming it is the Senate inquiry members’ decision. Since Labor and the Dems have the numbers, Simon is indulging in a pathetic distancing exercise, but what’s new with old, old Labor? You’ll find the case against Peter Reith and other reluctant witnesses in What servants are for (June 27), as well as a piece by public service expert John Nethercote on the systemic damage Labor’s gutless stance will inflict on the people’s power to hold their government accountable through the Parliament they elect.

Judith Quilter wrote:

Dear Margo,

I read your article regarding the ALP giving in on the children overboard inquiry and wrote to Simon Crean, who replied and told me to check my facts as this is not so. Where do you get your information from? I realise you journalists are all alike and we the public should take very little notice of you. I just find all the hysteria for the Coalition and the antipathy for the ALP rather disquieting. I do believe that Simon Crean is a much stronger character than the previous leader and I think it is time the Press gave him a go. However I guess while John Howard goes on his trips with his large retinue we will hear little criticism.

Dear Judith,

Hi. Confirmed it with Labor inquiry people, Lib inquiry people, and the secretariat. Can you send me Crean’s reply? Would love to publish it. I hope they change their mind, but doubt it.

Dear Margo,

Herewith the reply. I do realise that John Faulkner has done a good job. It looks like the ALP might be hard working at the moment, but that is what Kim Beazley should have been doing for the past 6 years. I must say I do feel empathy for Simon Crean. I think the media has really sucked up to John Howard.

Dear Ms Quilter,

Please check your facts before you accuse us of being craven. We have pressed, and are continuing to press for the truth at the children overboard inquiry. The public hearings have ended, at the committee’s decision, not ours, and if necessary the committee can reopen them. The committee is now continuing its consideration of the issues and its conclusions , and the Labor members will continue to press for the truth to be told.

It is obvious that you feel strongly about this, as do we all, but this does not mean you can malign honest and hardworking Labor members of this committee.


For the record, the unthrown children/SIEV-X report was to be handed down on Thursday. The draft minority report is ready, but the Liberal inquiry members successfully sought a delay to September 25 so they could draft a minority report.

Here’s the rotten rub. Labor Senator John Faulkner worked hard earlier this year to convince journalists that Labor hadn’t walked away from the big call – to subpoena Peter Reith and key ministerial and prime ministerial staffers to give evidence. You’ll recall there were several media reports that Labor was ready to subpoena Reith and co to get the truth. Instead, Labor came up with an unprecedented ploy.

It asked the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, to recommend an independent expert to assess the evidence, decide whether any of the reluctant witnesses had a case to answer and, if so, to set out that case. Labor argued that the independent report would put pressure on the witnesses to front up and defend themselves. If they didn’t, Labor would have the moral authority to go in hard, as the Government could not claim that the case against the witnesses was only political.

Faulkner specifically told me and others he did not rule out subpoenas if Reith and co maintained their refusal to account for their actions after the independent report was completed.

I bought the line. Sucker punched. Now, the draft report is ready BEFORE the expert, Stephen Odgers SC, has even sent in his report.

So the last word should go to Liberal Senator George Brandis, who, it must now be said, has brilliantly led the defence team at the inquiry.

“The independent report was a completely confected excuse which you were silly enough to swallow – that this was a bona fide attempt to advance the committee’s work,” Brandis told me today. “It was nothing but a red herring to get the Labor Party over the embarrassment of not being prepared to exercise the subpoena power when it had insisted for months that these people must give evidence.”

“One the Liberal Senators called their bluff, they ran away at a million miles an hour.”

Brandis called their bluff when Dems Senator Andrew Bartlett moved a motion at a private meeting of Senate inquiry members that the reluctant witnesses be subpoenaed to appear. Brandis specifically conceded that the committee had the power to do this, and the three Liberal committee members abstained. Labor voted against, so Bartlett, and the Australian people, lost.

Brandis reminded me today that the inquiry “opened the batting between Crean and Howard after the election – look at how comprehensively Crean has wrong-footed himself.”

Personally, I just don’t believe that John Faulkner caved in off his own bat. He’s put too much hard work and passion into it – particularly on the SIEV-X tragedy – to do so. I reckon he’s been rolled.


Finally, Webdiarist Noel Hadjimichael in Camden welcomed me back today with his list of hot topics.

“I hope the break was productive and beneficial. What should the Webdiary tackle at the moment?

“I would suggest one of three topics that have got the potential for substantial “mums and dads” feedback:

(a) the tormented “reform” environment for the ALP – pushing for greater transparency and membership involvement on the one hand whilst allowing another head office imposed nominee for the first byelection since Hawke/Wran (Margo: Anyone in Wollongong who’d like to report this byelection, and perhaps explain why Labor factional heavies have imposed a candidate, disenfranchised local branch members and generally behaved as the thugs Crean’s reforms are supposed to disempower?)

(b) the important debate over stem cell research (with both major parties divided into “conscience vote” lobbies)

(c) the powerful and emotion-charged public response to the 55 year sentence for the gang rape leader (overlaid with lashings of questioning over multiculturalism etc).

I look forward to your renewed leadership of this valuable interface between journalism and its marketplace consumers (the mums and dads).”

Noel emailed just before George Pell stood down as head of the Catholic Church in Australia after sex allegations against him. Add (d)

OK, let’s do it.

Labor backdown opens black hole of accountability

Labor is a shell of a party, sure, but the lack of guts and integrity it’s shown in the children overboard inquiry is something else again. Its decision to capitulate to systematic government obstruction rather than do everything in its power to force the main players in the scandal into the witness box is a stain on the Senate and an awful blow to the accountability of government to the people.

Labor Senators have tortured mere public servants for days on end, humiliated powerless bit players and irrevocably harmed brilliant public service careers. In the meantime, the people who know the truth and lied about it, covered it up, and pressured the chief of the navy to mislead the public have senior positions in government and the private sector. Peter Reith is a consultant to a defence firm using his cozy government contacts to best financial advantage.

The Government rewards its protectors – the men who ensure the buck stops nowhere and that the unethical prosper.

Cabinet banned crucial staff advisers to Peter Reith – Peter Scrafton, Peter Hendy and Ross Hampton from giving evidence. Defence Minister Robert Hill went even further, banning a mere public service secretary in Reith’s office at the time from giving evidence about the processing of the captions on the notorious photos Reith used to convince the Australian people he had proof of the lie that asylum seekers had thrown children overboard.

When the SIEV-X tragedy hit the inquiry radar, defence minister Robert Hill had the gall to ban the head of the defence force task force formed specifically to assist the inquiry, Admiral Raydon Gates, from giving evidence. Gates had personally reviewed all intelligence reports of the movements and condition of SIEV-X for the inquiry.

Legal advice from the clerk of the senate, Harry Evans, makes it crystal clear the Senate can direct the recalcitrants to give evidence, and subpoena them if necessary. There is also nothing to stop the man whose behaviour is most in question, Peter Reith, from being ordered to appear. Reith, of course, is prepared to go to the High Court if necessary to avoid accountability to the Australian people.

Labor Senate leader John Faulkner was concerned not to create uncomfortable precedents for a future Labor government, and (supposedly) anxious to avoid the possibility that the Courts would water down the Senate’s powers to compel witnesses to appear.

He sold his interim plan – to get an independent assessor to compile the case against the men who haven’t the guts to account for their actions – as a means to pressure them to appear before considering more drastic action.

But now it’s all over, even before the assessor’s report has been received. Yesterday’s public hearing, according to inquiry Senators and the committee secretariat, was the last, with the report to be handed down on August 20.

Perhaps it’s the fact that the politics isn’t instantly favourable to Labor – most Australians don’t want to know for sure if Howard’s government lied to them during the election campaign, and whether the defence force showed callous disregard for the lives of asylum seekers on board SIEV-X.

But this is a matter of much greater moment than short-term public opinion. It is about the integrity of government itself, the limits on lying to win office, and what mechanisms the people, through their parliament, have to enforce integrity in government.

Unless Labor changes its mind, the Government has created precedents which mean future governments can, at whim, ban ministerial staffers, public service secondees to minister’s offices – advisory and merely administrative – and members of the defence force from giving evidence. It can even stop public servants being accountable for their actions after they leave minister’s offices.

Labor can’t be concerned that the Senate’s powers might be watered down in any court action. Capitulation is worse than taking that risk – it renders Senate power illusory by default.

Courtesy of Labor, a black hole of accountability has been opened which will swallow future attempts to force the buck to stop somewhere in government. Minister’s staffers can order public servants to do anything, keep anything from their ministers, tell their ministers and not have to tell that to the public, in fact destroy any reasonable chance for the public to get near the truth of scandals.

As for SIEV-X, to close down its inquiry into the tragic deaths of 353 asylum seekers without recalling the man whose false evidence on the matter exposed an attitude of callous indifference and sheer incompetence in the defence force’s Operation Relex, is a betrayal of the families of the dead. Admiral Geoffrey Smith’s evidence has been shot to pieces by later defence witnesses, yet Labor has decided not to call him to account.

Who cares? Certainly not Labor, a cheap and nasty relic of a once great political movement.

Postscript: After confirming the closure of the inquiry yesterday, Labor suddenly hedged its bets late today. Asked for an official comment by smh.com.au, Senator Faulkner backtracked a little late today. “The inquiry has not closed down,” he now says. “The committee awaits answers to further questions on notice including email traffic from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.” We’ll see.