PM told no children overboard

The Australian
16 AUG 2004

THE controversy around the issues raised by 43 signatories of the recent open letter has at its centre the vital issue of truth in government. It is perhaps timely that I add to the public record on this matter.

The report of the Senate committee inquiring into a Certain Maritime Incident -- the children overboard affair -- found the inquiry had been 'significantly hampered' by my 'refusal' to testify before it.

The salient issue for the committee was 'the extent of the Prime Minister's knowledge of the false nature of the report that children were thrown overboard' and therefore 'the extent to which the Government as a whole wilfully misled the Australian people on the eve of a federal election'.

The report noted the committee's 'inability to question Mr Scrafton on the substance of his conversations with the Prime Minister therefore leaves that question unresolved'.

The reasons for my non-appearance are mixed. Prominent among them was the failure of the committee to subpoena me to appear.

It was also significant that both the then secretary of defence (Allan Hawke) and the office of the former minister for defence, Peter Reith, advised me there had been a cabinet decision directing that I not appear.

Having resumed my position in Defence as a public servant following the election, these factors naturally weighed heavily in my decision. I have since retired from the commonwealth public service.

Also, I hold the conviction that public comments on controversial matters by senior public servants should only be made with reluctance and then only in exceptional circumstances.

However, a small footnote to the history of the 'children overboard affair' may now be appropriate.

For the record, I was in Peter Reith's office as a seconded public servant on the same basis that I was attached to the previous defence minister's office (John Moore).

The conditions were that I had no involvement in electoral politics and dealt only with matters of Defence policy and public administration. During the election campaign, I remained in the Canberra office managing the ongoing business of the 'caretaker period' while Reith and the political staffers, except for the chief of staff, relocated to Melbourne.

I did not see the minister in person during that period. Consequently, as the Senate report demonstrates, I was involved in many conversations with the minister, his press secretary, the chief of staff, the Prime Minister's Office, the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force from the first release of the photographs purporting to be of children in the water.

What would I have told the Senate committee? On the evening of November 7, 2001, after having viewed the tape from the HMAS Adelaide at Maritime HQ in Sydney, 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 Defence that I dealt with on the matter still believed any children were thrown overboard.

During the last conversation, the Prime Minister asked me how it was that he had a report from the Office of National Assessments confirming the children overboard incident.

I replied that I had gained the impression that the report had as its source the public statements of the then minister for immigration, Philip Ruddock.

When queried by the Prime Minister as to how this could be, I suggested that question was best directed to Kim Jones, then the director-general of the Office of National Assessments.

Mike Scrafton Melbourne, Vic

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