Of course they knew

Ministers overboard
John Faulkner

On 23 October the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident tabled its report, after eight months of work, 15 days of hearings, and non-stop obstruction from the government.

Despite John Howard's initial claim that he wasn't afraid of the truth, he used a Cabinet directive to prevent key staffers from giving evidence to the committee. It is clear he wanted to keep as much of the truth hidden as possible.

The committee has found that:

  • From the 7th October 2001, the Prime Minister, his office and senior members of PM&C received, on at least thirteen occasions, written or oral reports that indicated serious doubts that children had been thrown overboard.
  • From the 7th October, Peter Reith and his office received on at least fourteen occasions, written or oral reports that categorically denied, or indicated there were serious doubts, that children had been thrown overboard.
  • From the 7th October, Philip Ruddock's department never received any written advice from Defence indicating that children had been thrown overboard.

All three Ministers, throughout the 2001 election campaign, allowed the lie, that children had been thrown overboard, to remain fixed in the public imagination. This is despite the efforts of several courageous members of the Defence Forces who tried to get their Minister to correct the record.

Mr Howard was told before his election address to the Press Club that there were doubts about the authenticity of the photographs that Peter Reith released as evidence that children had been thrown overboard. However, on the following day at the Press Club, even when asked directly about the authenticity of the photographs, Mr Howard chose not to mention those doubts.

The current Defence Minister, Senator Hill, announced yesterday that Defence communications have now been streamlined. But the fault did not lie with Defence communications. It lay with the Ministers and their staff who ignored those communications - who were not interested in the truth and even less interested in the truth getting to the Australian people.

And even now, over a year later, no one has been sacked or disciplined for allowing the lie to remain. No public servant, no staffer, no Minister.

I have also included a statement on disruption in Indonesia. There were clear problems with the intelligence flow and analysis regarding people smuggling activities, and these must be addressed. However it is my strong view that if the ADF knew that SIEV X was in distress, they would have rushed to the rescue. What happened before SIEV X's departure from Indonesia remains unknown.

Only a judicial inquiry can get to the bottom of the people smuggling disruption program in Indonesia. The lives of 353 people were lost when SIEV X sank on 19 October 2001. We owe it to them to find out exactly what happened.


John Faulkner is the Australian Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and Shadow Minister for Public Administration and Home Affairs. For further information on the Children Overboard affair, go to the Australian Labor Party's Truth Overboard website.


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Suggested citation
Faulkner, John, 'Of course they knew', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 7, November 2002.<http://evatt.org.au/news/course-they-knew.html>