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.