Senate committee to push for boat inquiry ~ Russell Skelton (Age)
The Senate committee investigating the sinking of the vessel in which 353 asylum seekers drowned is expected to recommend a full judicial inquiry into the incident and into the anti-people-smuggling disruption program.
It is believed the committee's chairman, ALP Senator Peter Cook, has secured backing for the move from the new Democrats leader, Senator Andrew Bartlett, and independent Tasmanian senator Shayne Murphy.
Senate sources said yesterday the committee's report into the sinking of the so-called SIEVX, part of a broader inquiry into the children-overboard controversy, would be toughly worded and highly critical of the Howard Government's handling of the sinking.
In particular, it is expected to highlight the lack of cooperation given the committee by government ministers, including Defence Minister Robert Hill, who barred senior staff from appearing, and also the performance of some key witnesses who gave "unreasonably guarded" evidence.
Labor committee member John Faulkner said in a speech to parliament last month that an independent judicial inquiry should be held into the sinking and into allegations that a former police informer in Indonesia had admitted to paying Indonesians to scuttle people-smuggling boats with passengers on board.
A senator familiar with the committee's deliberations told The Age there was enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Indonesia National Police (INP) had gone too far in carrying out the disruption program for Australia authorities. But committee members had been unable to get adequate answers to many important questions.
"The only feasible option now is to call for a judicial inquiry," Senator Faulkner said. "There is no way there can be closure on this tragic event, as the circumstances surrounding the sinking remain highly suspicious and cause for genuine concern."
The committee's report is expected to make special reference to the INP, which was carrying out the disruption program for Australian agencies, raising the possibility that SIEVX had been sabotaged when it sank between Australia and Indonesia on October 19 last year.
The report is also likely to raise questions about Indonesia's sudden decision to suspend its memorandum of understanding on the disruption program with Australia last November.
Meanwhile, Liberal senators on the committee, including deputy chairman Senator George Brandis, are expected to bring down a minority report disagreeing with the committee's overall findings, questioning the motivation of non-government senators on the committee, and defending the integrity of the Federal Police and Immigration Department officials involved.
The Senate report is due to be tabled on October 28.
Justice Minister Senator Chris Ellison has strongly denied any Australian involvement in sabotaging refugee boats, but he has not ruled out the possibility that boats may have been damaged without Australia's knowledge by Indonesian police.
Senator Ellison described as an outrageous slur on Australian law enforcement suggestions by Senator Faulkner that government efforts to disrupt asylum-seekers' boats may have included sabotage. AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty said Federal Police officers had never been involved in sabotaging vessels.
Senator Faulkner has called on the government to disclose the extent of its disruption program, and what role federal ministers have played in authorising its activities.
The government runs its people-smuggling disruption program out of the Australian embassy in Jakarta.
Its activities are carried out by Australian agencies, including the AFP, working with Indonesian police.
Commissioner Keelty has told the children-overboard inquiry that the AFP would never ask Indonesian police to break the law in disrupting people-smugglers. But he admitted that it had little control over the actions of Indonesian authorities.