353 deaths overshadowed by child that wasn't thrown

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Editorial

353 deaths overshadowed by child that wasn't thrown

The Senate committee set up to investigate whether asylum seekers threw their children into the sea last year found that they didn't, and that former defence minister Peter Reith continued to lie about this right through the 2001 federal election.

The committee also investigated the circumstances surrounding the drowning of 353 asylum seekers, who died when their boat, SIEV-X, sank in international waters between Indonesia and Christmas Island. The report was tabled in the Senate on October 23, the first anniversary of the day that the SIEV-X tragedy became public.

The committee's report was a big disappointment to those who had hoped that the Labor-Democrat majority on the committee would draw damning conclusions about the navy's and the government's role in the sinking.

During the course of the committee's inquiry, an investigation by Channel Nine's Sunday program revealed that the Australian Federal Police were deeply involved in an extensive people-smuggling disruption program in Indonesia. AFP officers were working with criminals and sections of the Indonesian police, both of which were involved in the entrapment of asylum seekers and active sabotage and sinking of asylum-seeker boats.

The committee recommended that there be a full independent inquiry into the people-smuggling disruption program and the AFP involvement in it. This is welcome. But we also need an investigation into whether the sinking of SIEV-X was due to the navy command turning a blind eye in its mission to “deter and deny”.

The committee, by its own admission, did not get to the bottom of the conflicting testimony and withheld evidence. Tony Kevin, who first alerted the committee to the questions surrounding SIEV-X, believes that “the report seems too gentle on the ADF, taking at face value the many flip-flops and deliberate sowings of uncertainty in senior officials' testimony”.

Many of these questions would have been able to be answered by Reith. The Senate committee decided that it would be inappropriate to use its full powers to compel witnesses such as Reith to appear and give evidence.

Defending Labor's decision not to summons Reith, ALP Senate leader, “left” Labor's John Faulkner told the ABC's 7.30 Report on October 23: “I don't want to turn the Senate into a witch hunt. I don't want a McCarthyist Australian Senate.”

This inquiry was never a witch hunt, it simply aimed to hold the government accountable for its actions.

According to Labor Senator Peter Cook, chair of the committee, Reith wasn't called because it would have been too expensive and time consuming to force the issue through the courts.

But the committee proceeded to fork out $38,500 of taxpayers' money to engage the professional services of Steve Odgers QC to assess the evidence against Reith and his ministerial staffers. Then, the committee stopped its public hearings and began to prepare its report before Odgers' report was even completed.

At the point where the government refused to allow ministerial and prime ministerial staff to testify, it was Labor's call. A Senate committee had the power to force them to testify. The Labor senators could have challenged the government to justify why government staffers shouldn't be accountable for their actions. If, as a result, the inquiry had taken longer, so be it.

The SIEV-X sinking is one of Australia's 21st century tragedies. That the Senate committee gave far greater weight to the minute detail of who lied about a child that wasn't thrown overboard, while pussyfooting around a possible coverup of government and navy knowledge of the deaths of 353 people, is a national disgrace.

We owe it to the many innocent victims that were dragged to their deaths beneath the raging seas to continue to press for a judicial enquiry into every aspect of this terrible disaster.

From Green Left Weekly, October 30, 2002.
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