The Daily Telegraph
25 October 2002

A slight against our finest

THE most galling consequence of the political posturing which has marked the children-overboard inquiry is the reckless accusations that potentially tarnish the reputation of our navy.

The navy does not deserve that. If any players in this protracted drama have earned commendation its the men and women of the senior service.

One needs only recall those photographs of sailors from HMAS Adelaide in the ocean rescuing asylum seekers whose boat was sinking. That series of images displayed courage, dedication and training of which any military force would be proud.

The tabling of the voluminous report of the Senate Select Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident on Wednesday settled few political stoushes. Unfortunately, no one came away cleanly.

After 15 hearing days in which evidence given by the heads of the Australian Defence Force, the Royal Australian Navy and Defence Department bureaucrats, the inquiry found there was no evidence to support initial reports that asylum seekers aboard SIEV IV had thrown children overboard. Conversely, there was no evidence to indicate Prime Minister John Howard had been made aware the claims had proven to be false.

However, the inquiry did establish a breakdown in the ministerial chain of command. It found that Peter Reith, the defence minister at the time, and government staff members had been told repeatedly that the claims might not be true, and that Mr Reith had deliberately concealed this during the election campaign.

One thing thing needs to be made clear. navy personnel who passed the initial reports onto Government did so in good faith. This information was passed on by ministers to the public in the same good faith. However, when later reports cast doubt on the veracity of the claims, these appear not to have been passed on by Mr Reith or ministerial advisers.

Public deceit by a minister is unforgivable, but so are the wild accusations that have been largely left uncountered in the report. The most offensive were the unfounded assertions that ADF members were aware of of the SIEV X sinking, in which 353 asylum seekers drowned, and did nothing.

The report clears the ADF of any wrongdoing, but does little to remove the stigma of these preposterous claims. As the then defence secretary Allan Hawke told the inquiry, the ADF received no confirmation that SIEV X had left Indonesian waters, no distress signals were received and the military would never permit a boat in distress to sink.

We can be justifiably proud of the men and women of our defence forces in the conduct of their duties during these missions. It is more than can be said of some of the politicians involved in the inquiry, such as Labor Senator John Faulkner.

Senator Faulkner asked in Question Time last month whether the Government's attempts to deter asylum seekers' vessels had included the direct sabotage of boats.

He should be compelled to apologise for this outrageous slur against our defence force.

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