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Sen Hill Radio National IV – On Children Overboard


Wednesday 23 October 2002 MIN 587/02

TRANSCRIPT

Interview with Cathy Van Extel

Radio National

7:30am, Wednesday 23 October 2002

Compere:

The so called children overboard affair has been one of the major political issues of the year I think it's fair to say but there could be some closure to the controversy today. A Senate Committee examining a Certain Maritime Incident will hand down its report five months after the original due date. On the eve of this development the Howard Government's moved to neutralise the issue announcing new measures to improve communication procedures for the Defence Department. And that's outraged the Opposition which has again accused the government of blame shifting. Cathy Van Extel is back in our Parliament House studio. Now Cathy what should we expect from this report?

Journalist:

Well the report isn't public yet but there's been a bit of judicious leaking going on. It deals with two key incidents. One was the sinking of SIEV X that resulted in the loss of 353 lives and on that front the Defence Department's cleared of any wrong doing or neglect. The second incident of course is the children overboard affair. The majority report, which is dominated by Labor, is highly critical of the former Defence Minister, Peter Reith, and some government staff. There is a dissenting report by the Government Senators which centrally attacks their fellow committee members and that's been very much the thrust of the government's approach to this inquiry from day one. That it is a political exercise. But to take the sting out of the issue the Defence Minister yesterday outlined new communication procedures for his Department. And as you mentioned he's come under criticism from Labor about that. Robert Hill joins me in the studio this morning. Thanks Senator for coming in today.

Senator Robert Hill:

Pleasure.

Journalist:

Well you've announced better procedures for the Defence Department, but I guess the question is how does that address that core question of a Minister and government staffers refusing to allow the record to be set straight?

Senator Robert Hill:

Well that's not the core question. The core issue was that incorrect information flowed through the command chain to government and then was communicated to the public. And we wanted to make sure that didn't re-occur and thus from the outset, whilst the Senate went about its business, we went about ensuring that there were better practices put in place for the future.

Journalist:

The evidence to the inquiry was though that there were concerted efforts from within Defence to let the Minister know that the information was incorrect.

Senator Robert Hill:

Well that didn't ever get to the Minister. And as you know even within Defence at the highest levels, right up until the start of the inquiry, there was still uncertainty as to really what the facts were. So what we've said is I don't think we'll fully understand how this error could have occurred. The more important thing is to ensure the lessons are learnt from it and better practices are put in place for the future.

Journalist:

Labor's accused you of blame shifting here. Certainly earlier this year, government relations with Defence were damaged over this issue. Isn't this simply going to - this is not going to help mend that by simply putting the responsibility back on the Defence Department is it?

Senator Robert Hill:

No - Defence itself conducted internal processes to determine how its communication could be more accurate in the future. How errors such as this could be avoided in the future. This is not me telling them to do it. This is Defence initiating their own processes of reform. And what I've done is announce them because that'll give the public greater confidence that in future, mistakes like this won't be made.

Journalist:

Senator, on another matter there is a claim in this week's US News and World Report that Australian intelligence eavesdropped on radical Muslim extremists discussing attacks on Australian citizens in the weeks before the Bali bombings. Did we receive such information?

Senator Robert Hill:

Look I don't know the answer to that. I can't, obviously couldn't speak on specific intelligence in any event. But what I can say is that each of our intelligence agencies have advised the government that they have no specific information on a threat to tourists in Bali. And the US has said the same thing after searching its records and the British have said the same thing after searching its records and its also the position of the Indonesians.

Journalist:

Tonight you're giving a speech about our strategic policy in the aftermath of the Bali attacks. Are we going to see a change in direction?

Senator Robert Hill:

Well not a fundamental change in direction except for the fact that terrorism is really at the top of the agenda. And that is being sourced out of the Middle East, but it's obviously flowed into our own region with horrendous consequences. So we need to tackle it both at source and where it is being activated at present. This would mean that not only will it be necessary to continue the war against terror but it will be necessary to further expand our relationship, with Indonesia for example, expand our intelligence, sharing of intelligence, supporting them in their efforts, to ensure that terrorism is rooted out within Indonesia and therefore to protect Australian interests and Australians.

Journalist:

While the PM is saying that we are committed to the war on terrorism, he also says that our priority must be our backyard. How can we manage both with the limited resources that we do have?

Senator Robert Hill:

The problem is that this is a global threat as we've seen. It may have been sourced in the Middle East - and Afghanistan was the headquarters of al-Qaeda - but the tentacles have extended all around the world into our own region and have become therefore a direct threat to Australia and Australian interests. So we and others - there is a coalition of global community determined to fight and to defeat this threat - will have to tackle it on a global, in a global sense and continue with that attack until we're successful.

Journalist:

But can we do both? Can we commit our forces to campaigns further afield and at the same time protect our own backyard?

Senator Robert Hill:

Well of course we can. But what I've tried, because we only have a relatively small number of forces in Afghanistan even though they are very capable and doing a great job. But what I'm saying to you is it doesn't become an either or because it's all part of the same network. And if you don't tackle them in a global sense then the area in which you are not tackling will grow and become a threat to you.

Journalist:

Now you've ordered a - the annual strategic review to be updated following the Bali bombings. When are you expecting that?

Senator Robert Hill:

Well that's now complete and when - you say after it's been in process for some months - it's being updated by the Bali bombings and that process is complete and will go to government.

Journalist:

What about the role of the SAS in this region? Earlier this week I spoke to the Foreign Minister who talked about a more diplomatic intelligence focus in this region. But are we going to see a great Defence presence in this region as well? In the aftermath of Bali?

Senator Robert Hill:

Well if you look at Indonesia, the really only counter terrorism capability they have is TNI, their defence force. If we are to work with Indonesia therefore on counter-terrorism issues - and you look at a joint taskforce, they seem now more ready to work with us cooperatively to tackle this scourge - then it will be necessary that we engage and work with TNI.

Journalist:

Senator Hill thank you.

ENDS

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