On 6 October 2001, the day after a federal election was called, the Australian Navy intercepted an Indonesian boat in Australian waters. Shortly afterwards, senior government ministers announced that asylum seekers on the boat had thrown children into the water. These ‘children overboard’ claims, later disproved, were widely believed to have assisted in the government’s re-election.
When sitting resumed in February 2002, opposition and crossbench senators joined forces to establish a select committee to investigate whether the government had deliberately misled the Australian public prior to the election.
The committee’s majority report detailed its concerns that ministerial advisers, despite playing a key role in the incident, had been banned from appearing before the committee for questioning. The committee, identifying ‘a serious accountability vacuum at the level of the ministers’ offices’, strongly recommended increased ministerial answerability.
Unsurprisingly, the committee’s conclusion that the ministers had known the claims were untrue led to ‘a most unusual, almost complete fissure between the non-government majority and the government minority’ members, whose scathing dissenting report described the committee as a ‘solemn farce’.
Heidrun Lohr, Scenes from Version 1.0’s A Certain Maritime Incident, Performance Space, Redfern, April 2004