Election ploy bites back

By Cameron Stewart
August 17, 2004

As former Department of Defence secretary Tony Ayres once noted, public servants live dangerously when offering frank and fearless advice to their political masters.

"To tell a minister he or she is wrong once is essential, twice is desirable and three times is suicidal," said Ayres.

So one can only imagine what must have raced through the mind of former senior Defence bureaucrat Mike Scrafton as he took a call from John Howard at an Italian restaurant in Sydney on the evening of November 7, 2001, three days before the federal election that Howard went on to win.

It was Scrafton's job to tell the Prime Minister what he did not want to hear. It had fallen to this public servant to tell Howard that, three days out from a federal election, the Government's central and much publicised claim that children were thrown overboard from an asylum-seeker vessel appeared to be wrong.

Having done his unpleasant duty, Scrafton watched in astonishment the following day as the Prime Minister ignored everything Scrafton had told him and, in a nationally televised address, defended the original claims that children were thrown overboard.

It was an extraordinary moment and one that must have sorely tested the loyalty of Scrafton, who was adviser to the then defence minister, Peter Reith.

And it did. For almost three long years Scrafton maintained his silence, as was his duty as a public servant. The Government assisted this by preventing him from giving evidence to a Senate committee investigating the children-overboard affair.

Scrafton's silence was the missing piece in the puzzle -- its absence made it impossible for the committee to properly gauge "the extent of the Prime Minister's knowledge of the false nature of the [children-overboard] report".

The question of what the PM knew, the committee noted, "is a key issue in assessing the extent to which the Government as a whole wilfully misled the Australian people on the eve of a federal election".

When Scrafton left the public service last year, the muzzle was technically removed, but he had no inclination to rewrite history for its own sake.

That changed last week, when 43 former public servants -- senior servicemen and diplomats -- signed a statement calling for truth in government and criticising Australia's participation in the Iraq war.

Scrafton was appalled when the Government responded by belittling the group, with MPs such as De-Anne Kelly deriding them as doddering daiquiri diplomats.

In Scrafton's view, the concerns raised by the group of 43 were valid -- he had witnessed at first hand what happens when a government plays loose and fast with the truth.

Scrafton's decision to speak out was not taken lightly and it has implications for Australian politics above and beyond the children-overboard affair.

Scrafton's actions -- along with those of the group of 43 -- reflect a growing dissatisfaction among serving and past public servants with the Government's perceived manipulation of the bureaucracy for political ends.

It was these concerns that fuelled exhaustive inquiries into the Government's use of intelligence to support its case for war in Iraq.

Increasingly, public servants are being muzzled or sidelined, their power ceded to all-powerful ministerial press secretaries, who erect firewalls to protect their bosses from news that might come back to haunt them.

This has fostered a culture of secrecy at the cost of accountability and the penalty for those who step out of line can be harsh, as witnessed by the political heavying of Australian Federal Police chief Mick Keelty after he contradicted the Government's position on terrorism and the Iraq war.

Although he is no longer a public servant, Scrafton has nonetheless broken the code of silence. By ripping off his muzzle, he has sent a message that what goes around comes around -- and that governments that play with fire will eventually get burned.

Now the political battle over his revelations has begun. Three years on, how damaging are they?

Scrafton's claims centre on the events of a single, extraordinary day in Australian politics -- November 7, 2001.

A month earlier, on October 7, the children-overboard affair was sparked when crew from HMAS Adelaide tried to board an asylum-seeker vessel dubbed SIEV 4, bound for Christmas Island.

In the ensuing confusion, the Adelaide's commander Norman Banks gave a verbal report that some passengers appeared to be threatening to throw children into the water.

It quickly became clear that this was not the case, but it was too late -- the then immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, told a press conference later that day: "I regard these as some of the most disturbing practices I've come across in public life." The Government was demonising asylum-seekers on the basis of the children-overboard allegations.

During the month that followed, the navy steadily backed away from the claims, telling Reith several times that there appeared to be doubts about their accuracy. However, it was not until November7, 2001, that the weight of evidence moved decisively against the continued public assertion by the Prime Minister and his Government that children were thrown overboard.

That morning The Australian ran a front-page story citing sources from HMAS Adelaide who denied the claims that children were thrown overboard.

Hours later, acting defence force chief Air Marshal Angus Houston reviewed all of the existing evidence, including a video and photos that purportedly supported the claim that children were thrown overboard.

He told Reith bluntly that the evidence simply did not support the initial claims.

"When Houston finished, there was silence at the other end of the line for some time -- Houston thought Reith was stunned," wrote David Marr and Marian Wilkinson in their book Dark Victory.

But Reith says he did not pass this information to Howard, who was due to give a key pre-election address to the National Press Club the next day, two days before the election.

On the same day, Howard had ordered his senior adviser Miles Jordana to gather all evidence of the original children-overboard claims in preparation for his press club appearance.

That night Jordana obtained a classified report from the Office of National Assessments which referred briefly to the claim that asylum-seekers had thrown children into the water.

But ONA director Kim Jones warned Jordana that the report may be based merely on public statements made by ministers.

At about the same time that night, Scrafton said he received three phone calls from the Prime Minister quizzing him about the children-overboard claims.

Scrafton claims he told Howard during those calls that the video of the event was at best inconclusive and that no one at a senior level in Defence believed any children had been thrown overboard.

Scrafton also claims he told the Prime Minister that the ONA report appeared to be based on public statements by Ruddock.

But at the press club the next day, Howard completely ignored Scrafton's advice. Instead, the Prime Minister produced the ONA report as evidence that his Government had not exaggerated the children-overboard claims.

Later that night Howard appeared on ABC television's Lateline program and -- barely 24 hours after receiving Scrafton's contrary advice -- said: "We act on advice and if the advice we get is one direction, we repeat it, if it's another direction, well, we repeat that as well."

In fact, Howard had not repeated a word of Scrafton's advice.

Then the Prime Minister added: "If in fact what we were saying is wrong, in fact, then it would have been helpful if we had been told."

But the Prime Minister had been told directly, only 24 hours earlier, that the children-overboard affair apparently had no basis in fact.

And we now know that Scrafton's contrary advice to Howard was airbrushed from history, barely 48 hours before a federal election.

This is why Scrafton's decision to speak out now is more than a footnote in history -- it is a plaintive cry for a higher standard of truth and honesty in government on the eve of another federal election.

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