31 August 2004

Inquiry sliced as ALP abandons ship

Labor has executed an early campaign backflip and will not subpoena ministerial aides to appear before a new inquiry into the children overboard affair.

The decision for only an abbreviated, one-day inquiry into the saga before polling day came after the Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, had said days earlier that he favoured forcing aides to be scrutinised. The inquiry will also report after ballots are cast, and further witnesses may be called after the election.

The former Defence adviser Mike Scrafton is likely to appear as early as tomorrow and expand on his allegation that the Prime Minister, John Howard, lied and knew that there was no evidence to back his claims during the last election campaign that asylum seekers threw their children into the sea.

The senior military officers who supported Mr Scrafton's claim, Major-General Roger Powell and Commander Mike Noonan, may also be called, but the intention was for the newly convened inquiry to run for just one day.

While there were plenty of brickbats slung at the Government benches in a rowdy question time yesterday, the decision by Opposition senators means that the public may be denied the full facts on the children overboard affair before they vote.

Labor also declined to subpoena witnesses during the first children overboard inquiry, including Mr Scrafton.

The Government and other critics said it had shied away from taking this step so it could hide its own "dirty laundry" should it form government.

Key figures in the saga yet to be questioned include Miles Jordana, the Prime Minister's then adviser, Ross Hampton, the press secretary for the former defence minister Peter Reith, and Peter Hendy, Mr Reith's chief-of-staff.

Mr Scrafton also worked as an adviser to Mr Reith.

Sacrificing scrutiny for the need to get out on the campaign trail, senators have handed Mr Howard his first big tactical coup of the campaign.

Really, really bad call. Without any examination of the ministerial advisers involved in the truth overboard matter the credibility of the Senate committee will be about zero. This probably throws away Labor's chance of seizing the initiative at the campaign's outset. A cynic might think one motive is Labor's anxiety about the calling of ministerial advisers in a prospective Labor government.

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