PM Not Briefed By TaskForce On SIEVX: Halton|
31 July 2002
I watched most of yesterday's testimony on webcast and here are a few initial observations:
Former Chair of the Prime Minister's People Smuggling Taskforce, Jane Halton, yesterday seemed for most of the day quite successful in a PR sense in publicly sheeting most of the criticism back to Defence and making her PST look unimportant, basically procedural, and blameless. Where she came to grief was at the end, on the issue of why Howard kept saying SIEVX sank in Indonesian waters when her committee was informed that it didn't. Her bravado and bluster became very unconvincing at that point - remember this was the same witness who implied back in April that her committee had not dealt with SIEVX at all. That claim looked pretty exposed and hollow after yesterday's 8 hours grilling on all the details of her committee's consideration of the potential arrival of SIEVX. She claimed that the Taskforce did not pass on to the PM the information that they had received that SIEVX was thought to have foundered in international waters. When Halton did brief the PM on the afternoon of the following day (24 October), her advice was that the boat had sunk in Indonesian waters "south of the western end of Java". She claimed that there was no inconsistency in this advice.
[Listen to a sound clip of Jane Halton testifying at the CMI Inquiry yesterday]
Then there was the testimony of Air Commodore Phillip Byrne, the Commander of the Maritime Patrol Group. He came across as an honest witness and a decent man. As anticipated, he confirmed that the Orion crews were given no safety of life at sea briefings until 21 October - and even then the briefing was degutted of its serious content. As he said, to tell them a boat was small and overcrowded meant nothing - because all the sievs were.
He said the Orion crews were not told that there were 400 people on a 20 metre boat, not told about the loading duress, or that the AFP officer Kylie Pratt had warned as a personal view of a risk to life.
Then there was the delay in getting the message to aircrews - when they could have been advised of the AFP report while flying to station on the morning of 20 October.
Then there is the instruction on 19 October to the morning and afternoon flights to concentrate first on the two southern sectors and only to do the northern sectors if time and fuel remained.
It all confirms the same ugly picture we have already known or suspected for weeks - Operation Relex and Norcom did not really want to find this boat.
[We will be putting up the transcript of yesterday's testimony as soon as it comes online.]
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