16 August 2004

Howard was told the truth

A central figure in the children overboard affair has broken a three-year silence, directly contradicting John Howard's election eve statements of November 2001 that children had been thrown overboard from an asylum-seeker vessel the previous month.

Mike Scrafton, at the time senior adviser to then defence minister Peter Reith, in three telephone conversations with the Prime Minister on the evening of November 7, 2001, conveyed his view that the children overboard claim was inaccurate.
Mr Howard, in his remarks to the National Press Club the next day and in subsequent interviews until polling day, continued to claim children had been thrown overboard - contrary to the advice provided by Mr Scrafton and air force chief Angus Houston to the Government up to November 7, the day The Australian first exposed the claims as wrong.

The affair was a decisive factor in the November 10 election, with the Howard Government using the incident to stoke public anger against asylum-seekers and divide Labor over border protection policy.

Mr Scrafton's exclusive letter to The Australian is the crucial missing link in establishing the extent to which the Howard Government misled the public about the children overboard affair in the 2001 election.

Mr Scrafton, a former senior defence department bureaucrat, was gagged by cabinet from giving evidence to the 2002 Senate committee set up to inquire into the children overboard affair.

'The question of the extent of the Prime Minister's knowledge of the false nature of the report that children were thrown overboard 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,' the Senate report found. 'Its inability to question Mr Scrafton on the substance of his conversations with the Prime Minister therefore leaves that question unresolved in the committee's mind.'

A spokesman for Mr Howard last night declined to comment until the Prime Minister had read the letter.

This is actually not all that new. Scrafton's gagging more or elss gave the game away when the Senate committee investigated the affair last year. What is new is that the Murdoch press has given it front page treatment and that means the Man of steel has got too grimy for even the Dirty Digger to handle.

This won't decide the election, but it will probably mean that Latham will win this week as decisively as he won the last 2 weeks. It is no wonder Howard told Sunday yesterday that he thought the election would be in October.

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