April 6th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Stem cell research: the way forward

The facts behind the 'people overboard' affair

Opinion: The banks' power over small business

STRAWS: Selective amnesia / Slow boat to China / Tower of Babel

TRADE: Sugar price collapse threatens future of canegrowers

MEDIA: Debating points

New Zealand faces winter of discontent

Manufacturing: an endangered species (letter)

Afghan specialities (letter)

The great water debate: facts and myths

COMMENT: Healthy disinterest no bad thing

UNITED STATES: Behind Washington's self-serving free trade rhetoric

Switzerland, Taiwan seek UN membership

HISTORY: Demons and Democrats: the story of the Labor Split

Books: JOHN GORTON: He Did It His Way, by Ian Hancock

MEDIA: Stem cells: what debate?

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The facts behind the 'people overboard' affair

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, April 6, 2002

The Senate Inquiry into the "people overboard" affair, which commenced in Canberra last week, has documented what was apparent to many people at the time: that Defence Minister Peter Reith, acting on Departmental advice, persisted with claims that photos showed children were thrown overboard when this was untrue; but 76 children and a large number of adults were in the water because their boat had been deliberately scuttled to force the Navy to pick them up.

The Inquiry also heard evidence that the boat people had put on life jackets before the boat was in danger of sinking, and that the HMAS Adelaide had fired in front of this vessel on at least three occasions, in an effort to turn it around, and redirect it towards Indonesia, from where it had come.

Vice-Admiral Shackleton, Chief of the Navy, told the Senate Committee he received regular briefings during the operation on October 8 last year.


He said, "I had an awareness that the people on these boats would go to great lengths to achieve their ends [of entering Australia] and that threatening to hurt people was not a new tactic of persons seeking to enter Australia in such circumstances."

Vice-Admiral Shackleton also confirmed evidence he gave to a Senate Foreign Affairs and Defence on February 20.

At that time, he described what happened to another boat containing asylum seekers from Indonesia that had entered Australian waters and was at anchor in the lagoon on Ashmore Reef on October 20, two weeks after the "people overboard" incident took place.

He said, "During the incident ... about 15 people from the vessel jumped into the water, and one woman amongst several women held a young child over the side by its wrists, and the child was dropped into the water. The child was recovered by one of the people in the water who swam to the child and raised it from the water. They were subsequently brought out of the water back onto the boat."

He also confirmed that shortly after the Navy had taken over responsibility for policing Australia's maritime boarders in August 2001, "the Navy discovered quite soon that the use of children for the purpose of moral blackmail by asylum seekers - either by threatening to throw them into the water or by, as in the case of the the event on 24 October, throwing them into the water, or by, as in the case of SEIV10 [another vessel carrying suspected illegal entrants], deliberately sinking the vessel and carrying children into the water from the sunk vessel" was a tactic used by boat people to get into Australia.

It is clear from the evidence that desperate boat people, no doubt coached by the people smugglers whom they had paid to provide passage to Australia, endangered their own lives and those of their children to force Australia to accept them.

It also emerged, from video evidence of the "children overboard" incident, that a little girl was dangled from the side of the boat, and a threat was made to drop the child into the water, although there was no evidence that this threat was carried out.

Vice-Admiral Shackleton also confirmed that in the case of a number of other boats carrying asylum seekers into Australian waters last year, the boats' engines were deliberately sabotaged, the boats were holed to cause them to sink, water pumps were sabotaged and fires were lit to sink the boats.

Media coverage of the "people overboard" affair last year supported Labor Party claims that the Defence Minister deliberately misled the Australian people about the incident, illegitimately helping the government win the last Federal Election.

One Senator said the incident "has become currency for journalists because of statements that were made in relation to children being thrown overboard, yet we have numerous incidents ... of children being either thrown overboard or threatened to be thrown overboard. But I have seen no or minimal reporting of any of those incidents in the Australian media in all of that three month period" from September to November last year.

While the photographs incorrectly were captioned as children who had been thrown overboard, they actually showed children who were in the water due to the deliberate sinking of their boat.

The evidence indicates that some asylum seekers, including those on the Tampa, which had rescued them from a sinking boat in the Timor Sea in August, but had then been forced to carry the carry them to Christmas Island, engaged in reckless criminal conduct to force their way into Australia.

This evidence strengthens the writers' view that this was the central issue which Australian voters were confronted with, on the boat people issue, in the run-up to the election on November 10 last year.

  • Peter Westmore

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