A Senate Committee Interrogation

After my relaxing weekend, I travelled to Canberra on Tuesday for a Committee hearing into claims of Australian involvement in interrogations in Iraq. This Inquiry was set up following allegations in a Four Corners report that the Government had misled the Parliament and the public in saying that no Australians were involved in any interrogations.

After further questioning at Estimates Committee hearings in February (page 36 onwards), the Senate decided to establish a specific Inquiry into the matter, supporting a joint motion moved by the Labor, Democrat and Green Parties.

This was the first hearing and the Committee heard from just the one witness – the man who made the allegations on Four Corners, Rod Barton. He is a retired intelligence analyst with a very impressive career stretching back to investigations in Laos and Cambodia in the early 1980s, as well as experience in Africa and Iraq through the 1990s. He came out of retirement to assist with the Iraq Survey Group in looking for weapons of mass destruction after the war.

There was a good turnout from the Committee, with 3 Coalition and 3 Labor Senators there, along with myself. A few of the specialist defence journalists from the press gallery also came along specifically to watch.

There was a lot of focus on the issue of whether people had been conducting ‘interviews’ or ‘interrogations’, with Mr Barton taking the common sense view that there was a lot of overlap between the two concepts and the words could quite reasonably be used interchangeably in describing what was done. However, the Government Senators’ were focused on manufacturing a distinct divide between the two terms, because the Minister had specifically told Parliament that no Australians had conducted or were present during interrogations and had continued to insist this was the case. I couldn’t quite see why the Government didn’t just acknowledge that there was a misunderstanding and correct the record, rather than continue to insist on such a dubious pedantic distinction.

To me, this was much less sigifinicant than Mr Barton’s claims that he had raised concerns about mistreatment of prisoners which had not been properly investigated, not to mention the fact that some of those people were still being held prisoner today – almost certainly illegally. The questioning from the Government Senators seemed mainly focused on trying to attack the credibility and accuracy of Mr Barton’s comments, rather like a defence lawyer trying to destroy the credibility of a witness by playing around with words and trying to create the perception of inconsistencies. This has become a fairly predictable approach from the Government, but I still found it rather irritating. Mr Barton seemed to handle it in his stride though.

This was just a one day hearing at this stage, although the Committee will probably have further hearings. I managed to fit it into a day trip, getting a 6.10am flight out of Brisbane and arriving back about 7.00pm. If you are interested in reading the Hansard record of the day’s proceedings you can find it here.

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  1. “3 Coalition and 3 Labor Senators there, along with myself.”
    No Greens? Didn’t you say they were part of calling for the inquiry in the first place?
    What’s the point of calling for inquiries and then not turning up to hear what people say?
    Seems to me Rod Barton’s evidence would be fairly significant given he raised the allegations so being there to hear it and ask questions would be kind of usefull too.

  2. Andrew,
    You will have to forgive my ignorance here, I just sent in a public submission to the Committee on Electoral Matters. I have seen who the members of the committee are.
    What is the process for the committee? The chair works out an agenda? Does the agenda come from the public submissions or is it decided by the chair?
    When a committee sits what is the expected result at the end of the committee? A recommendation or not?

  3. Cameron
    Each Inquiry and Committee can vary, but they usually follow the same basic approach.
    With this Inquiry, the Committee (and the Secretariat) will examine all the submissions and decide who might be useful to invite to a public hearing for more detailed questioning around some of the issues. This always includes the AEC and usually the major (and sometimes minor) political parties.
    Usually the Committee reaches general consensus on who to invite.
    The specific issue of authorising of websites is one that could seem quite minor to the Committee unless they get a number of submissions bringing it up and identifying potential issues with it.
    The Inquiry into the conduct on each election usually produces a substantial report (go to
    http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/em/elect01/index.htm to see the report from the corresponding Inquriy after the 2001 election). These always contain quite a number of recommendations on a wide range of issues – many of them unanimous, but usually with some additional proposals or comments from individual members or parties.
    As to Yulia’s comment, I would normally leave it alone, but I’ve been told that the Green MP from the SA publicly attacked the Democrats at a refugee rally last week for not supporting a Green motions to set up a Senate Inquiry into the Cornelia Rau – now’s not the time to go into why that proposal wasn’t supported at the time, but it really gives me the irrits when you’re on the same side with an issue and still get attacked over stuff like that, esp given the regular occurences such as what Yulia refers to.

  4. andrew – by being a politician writing such a good blog you are entering dangerous territory.
    Take me f’rinstance. I’m starting to like and understand you after a lifetime of not liking the Dems. Stop it. Go away you bastard.

  5. Thanks FX (I think)
    It’s a pity you’re developing a liking for the Dems just when everyone else seems to have lost their’s, but maybe you’re the trend-setter that signals the start of a mass resurgence!

  6. Andrew,
    Thanks for the reply and explaining the process. I also read through yours and Andrew Murray’s supplementary remarks to the 2001 JSCEM Report. It was an Andrew Murray’s website.
    Francis is right. In my opinion, you are Australia’s most in-touch and accessible politician. Good stuff.
    By comparison Warren Touch wont answer my questions through email and demands to send me a snail mail answer. Thumbs down for Warren and his staffer, Simon Kelly.

  7. andrew – yes it was a compliment,if a bit cryptic and backhanded.
    I’m not sure if I can express this well but your blog is an example of how the net can /could be used to explain and show in a way that MSM can’t and perhaps won’t. Most (oz – I don’t look at others) politicians seem only to use the net as a form of static sloganeering or spam type email outs.
    You have an understanding of the medium that is rare even amongst bloggers :). A nice light touch with a bit of the personal but not too much.
    I think even that pollies with less of these talents than you have could utilise the blog type form more by even just posting background links to information and policy that helped them form a decision on a particular issue.
    Its not coming out right. It will take more time and effort to say it.
    To be more direct, I thought your Senate Committee piece and the bit on a not very political easter important contributions to an informed public.

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