Australian PM Accused of Misleading Public

'Children Overboard' Scandal Resurfaces

Australia's prime minister, John Howard

Australia's Prime Minister John Howard. (Photo: Lee Besford/AFP-Getty Images)

Long-standing claims that Australian Prime Minister John Howard deliberately misled the Australian public during the 2001 election campaign over the now infamous "children overboard" affair have received further credence following an ex-senior Defense Department advisor's letter to The Australian newspaper this week.

Mike Scrafton, then departmental liaison officer for the Minister for Defense Peter Reith has claimed that on the night of November 7, 2001, just days before the general election, he spoke to the Prime Minister by mobile phone on three separate occasions. Scrafton alleges that, in these conversations, he detailed the lack of evidence for Howard's assertion that on October 7, illegal refugees en route to Australia had threatened to — and in some cases had — thrown their children into the ocean after their boat was intercepted by the HMAS Adelaide. The government argued this act was a means of intimidating the authorities into granting them asylum.

Described at the time by then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock as "some of the most disturbing practices I've come across in public life," and with Howard later stating, "I don't want people like that in Australia. Genuine refugees don't do that…they hang on to their children," the bizarre claim — though later shown to be completely without foundation — became part of the government's re-election strategy.

The Howard government, sensing the electorate's deep-seated fear of a wave of illegal immigrants arriving on Australian shores, used navy and coastal patrol vessels to aggressively turn back refugee ships, ignoring their obligations to give aid under international law. Government members continued to exaggerate the "children overboard" incident to demonize asylum seekers, misinform the electorate and divide the Opposition Labor party until polling day on November 10.

Authors David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, in their book Dark Victory (Allen & Unwin 2003) argue, "Whatever the Liberals would later say about this campaign, there was no doubt the party saw border protection as its most potent vote-winner…a fortune was spent hammering the message home. The party's federal director, Lynton Crosby, would cite the co-ordination of the message — in advertisements, posters and in the press — as evidence of the campaign discipline he believed brought the party victory."

Largely as a result of making border security one of the Howard government's central policy planks, the Liberal/National coalition went on to win the 2001 election. The "children overboard" incident has since become one of the most controversial episodes in Australian political history.

Though the Defense Department had revised its earlier opinion on the incident well before Election Day, Howard has continued to claim he had acted in good faith and was not made aware of the Department of Defense's altered stance until after the election on November 10. However Scrafton, who was prevented by the government from appearing before a later Senate enquiry into the affair, disputes this version of events in his letter,

"On the evening of November 7, 2001 after having viewed the [video] tape from the HMAS Adelaide… I spoke to the Prime Minister by mobile phone on three occasions. In the course of those calls I recounted to him that: a) the tape was at best inconclusive as to whether there were any children in the water but certainly didn't support the proposition that the event had occurred; b) that the photographs that had been released in early October were definitely of the sinking of the refugee boat on October 8 and not of any children being thrown into the water; and c) that no-one in Defense [Department] that I dealt with on the matter still believed any children were thrown overboard."

Howard has admitted speaking to Scrafton on the night in question however has denied deliberately misleading the public stating, "my sole purpose in ringing him on November 7, 2001 was to obtain his assessment of the video [of the stricken vessel] which he had just viewed. He gave me a description of the video and expressed the view it was inconclusive." Mr Howard denied he discussed photos taken of the children overboard and claims he was not made aware of the change in the Defense Department stance on the issue. However this appears to contradict a statement made by Howard in an interview on ABC's Four Corners current affairs program in 2002 when he advised the conversations with Scrafton had referred to "the debate about the discussion about the photographs."

Opposition Leader Mark Latham has slammed the government declaring in an interview for ABC on 16 August, "[I'm] outraged, absolutely outraged, that the Australian people could be so badly deceived and misled in the days leading up to the last election and the Prime Minister's covered it up ever since. Mr. Howard has been badly caught out and shown that he's not fit to hold the high office of prime minister in this country."

Greens Leader Bob Brown also joined the criticism in a media release on August 16, "Mr. Scrafton's claim makes our Prime Minister a deliberate liar: not a liar in the public interest but a man prepared to lie to 20 million Australians to promote his own hold on the job. He should resign." Both the Opposition and the minority parties have supported a renewed Senate enquiry to be held when Parliament reconvenes in September — a possibility the Prime Minister has brushed off as a political stunt suggesting, "They [the Opposition Labor Party] will set up another Senate enquiry, they will use their numbers, they will combine with the Democrats and the Greens, and I tell you what, they will find me guilty."

A career public servant and unlikely whistle-blower, Mr Scrafton said he was motivated to set the record straight after witnessing the derision that greeted an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister from forty-three retired diplomats and public servants calling for greater truth in government. Mr Scrafton's version of events received support later this week from Jenny McHenry — the former head of Defense public affairs and corporate communications — which confirmed Scrafton, had spoken to her the morning following the phone call and had repeated the points he had made with Mr Howard. In an event described by the Prime Minister as "a gimmick," Mr. Scrafton submitted himself to, and passed, a polygraph test organized by the Nine Network — a test Mr Howard has refused to undertake.

The Liberal/National coalition knows that, to retain power at the upcoming election, it must dispel doubts in the electorate over its inclination to mislead the public on important issues. Though opinion polls consistently show the Australian public as viewing John Howard as a strong leader on matters such as national security and the economy, the same polls show many people do not trust the government on other issues. A recent poll conducted by The Sydney Morning Herald showed over two thirds of people questioned believe they were misled by the government over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability prior to the war. The now resurfacing "children overboard" controversy and the open letter from the group of 43 ex-diplomats and public servant heads questioning the Howard government's honesty will further tarnish the government's reputation and increase the public's mistrust of Howard and his government.

With opinion polls showing the 2004 election is likely to be a close race, credibility may well be the decisive factor.