Children Overboard: Howard And Reith Get Their Stories Straight

Following a newspaper report this morning that the former Defence Minister, Peter Reith, had contradicted statements by the Prime Minister, John Howard, about when they spoke to each other and what was said about allegations asylum seekers threw children overboard, both men made media appearances today to show that they are in fact in agreement.

Reith has criticised the report in The Australian, whilst the government seemed happy to both defend Reith and allow him to take the flak for Children Overboard. As always, John Howard chose his words carefully.

Howard spoke at a press conference with New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

  • Listen to extract from Howard’s press conference (46s)

Transcript of press conference with Prime Minister John Howard.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard do you have an apology to offer any Australians that may have changed their vote…

PRIME MINISTER: I think that relates to another matter and we might let the New Zealand Prime Minister go.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard when you spoke to Mr Reith on November 7th (inaudible) specifically speak to you about the veracity of the claims that, the veracity of the claims that the children had been thrown overboard. Did you ask him about it?

PRIME MINISTER: I have already said on numerous occasions that I spoke to Mr Reith on the 7th of November and I don’t have anything to add to what I’ve said. I stand by what I’ve said and can I just say that I’ve just read a transcript of Mr Reith’s interview on 3AW in which there is no surprise to me he repudiates the story in the Australian this morning. Of course Mr Reith spoke to me. I indicated to the Parliament yesterday what, amongst other things, were the subject of the discussions I had with Mr Reith and I did an extensive interview this morning on 3AW and the discussion I had with Mr Reith on the night of the 7th of November was about a number of things. It was about the video, I think in fact I may have had two discussions with him that night. I can’t remember how many and I don’t think anybody could expect me to remember precisely how many. But I have a clear recollection of two issues being discussed, one of them related to the video and one of them was a general inquiry as to whether there had been any indication that the original advice was wrong. And let me just quote what Mr Reith said, “what he has said”, and he’s referring to me, “on the public record is my sort of basic memory of what happened and I have said all of these things before, I’m not just going on repeating myself for the sake of people who don’t want to hear what I’ve got to say.” Now they’re Mr Reith’s words and what’s he’s doing is saying that what I have said about the conversations I had with him were his basic memory of the position. And that doesn’t surprise me at all. I clearly would have spoken to Mr Reith on a number of occasions about these matters.

JOURNALIST: Did you ask specifically are the claims true or false?

PRIME MINISTER: I never said that’s what I said to him. What I have said in the past is that I’d sought advice as to whether any contradiction of the original advice had been received and I’ve said in the past that the answer to that was in the negative.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, also I believe you spoke to a senior defence adviser Mike Scrafton that night?

PRIME MINISTER: I did yes.

JOURNALIST: And did you talk to him about the doubts …

PRIME MINISTER: No, that was entirely about the video. I had no reason to doubt the story. And what…. I’d spoken to Peter, it was the night before the final Press Club and I was at the Lodge and there were a number of my staff there. They verified to me that I had spoken to Mr Reith, they weren’t physically present to hear my side of the conversations, I think they were in another room. But they have a very clear recollection of it and I discussed with him the question of the video and he gave a report of what Scrafton had said to him and I questioned, and he said why don’t you ring Scrafton and have a yarn with him because, he said, it’s Scrafton who’s seen the video, Peter hadn’t. So I did ring Scrafton and to the best of my recollection I asked him what the video depicted and he gave me a report and the impression I had was it was inconclusive about the, as to whether it contained evidence of children being thrown overboard. Bearing in mind that you could have had a situation where the video was quite inconclusive but the incident may have occurred or not occurred. And then we decided to release the video and I think I may have said to him and I subsequently repeated it that people would have to make their own conclusions, draw their own conclusions as to what the video suggested.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, do you find it credible that there are these wide spread doubts about the veracity of the initial advice in the public too, that no one (inaudible) to you. And in particular did you have any conversations about this, the veracity of the original advice with the head of your department Max Moore Wilton.

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don’t recall having had any discussions, in fact I’m certain I didn’t because I had no reason. You say can I understand, Jenny what you have to do is to put yourself back into the circumstances that were around at the time these things occurred. I mean it’s the only game in town at the moment media wise and politically but it wasn’t the only game in town, and we moved on. I mean it went out… after the 7/8/9/10th – that period, when I took questions on it, it quite honestly went out of my mind and I don’t recall, I mean I can’t certify to this because I haven’t checked the transcript of every speech I’ve made so I want to say that very carefully in case anybody comes back and says oh no that’s not right. But I can’t recall having raised the issue myself in a speech after the 10th of October and I’ve checked my transcripts of media interviews and between the 10th of October and the 26th of October there’s no reference to the issue at all. So I just, I mean that doesn’t prove anything except that it wasn’t the top of mind issue that people are now, for their own political purposes saying it clearly was. I mean it wasn’t dominating debate on asylum seekers. There was a lengthy exchange during the debate between Kim Beazley and myself on Channel Nine, The Debate, there was a lengthy exchange about border protection. I don’t remember any reference being made in that debate about children overboard. I mean the people voted for us on border protection because they agreed with our policy, not because of the allegations about children overboard.

JOURNALIST: But it was a very potent issue in the ….

PRIME MINISTER: Well Jenny I mean different people will have different views about the potency of a particular aspect of an issue. But I can only repeat, the original statements I made were based on advice. That advice was unambiguous, it was not subsequently contradicted and I did not have any material before me or any suggestions before me that would have reasonably caused me to seriously question the veracity of that advice. Now in those circumstances, I mean people may say that is hard to believe, I think people will say that, I mean this is an issue where quite, I mean, self evidently the bulk of the broadsheet media and most media commentators with some exceptions are very hostile, openly hostile to the Government’s position and clearly, I mean I think that report in the Australian this morning about what Mr Reith said in the light of what I know of the conversations between him and me and the commonsense of it, I mean it is absurd to imagine that the Defence Minister and I would not have spoken about this issue. I think that report particularly in the light of Peter’s denial is quite outrageous.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on the 23rd of January, [inaudible] and three days before the South Australian election, your Government also made claims that detainees in Woomera had forced their children to sew their lips together. Now those allegations have also been found to be false by the Department of Human Services in South Australia. Will you now apologise to the parents in Woomera [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I’m not aware that the Department of Human Services has now found those allegations to be untrue. I am aware, I am aware that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission said that in its discussions with people it had not been provided with any evidence. The original action was taken on the basis of a report from the Department of Human Services. That was the original action, and therefore I don’t see any need to apologise because, I mean if you get into a situation now where a minister gets a report from his department and takes action on the basis of that report and subsequently it is called into question by a separate body. Now I’m not aware that the Department of Human Services has contradicted its previous advice. That is news to me.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard did you at any time during the election discourage [inaudible] colleagues or public servants to advise you on the facts of the children thrown overboard…?

PRIME MINISTER: Discourage officers ?

JOURNALIST: Did you not want to know.

PRIME MINISTER: No. Why would I do that?

JOURNALIST: Because it may not have fitted with the….

PRIME MINISTER: Well see there….that’s the mindset you bring to the question. Well the answer’s no. The answer’s no.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, what was your response of seeing the reported conversation in The Australian [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: My reaction? I was amazed.

JOURNALIST: Do you recall [inaudible] from your office…?

PRIME MINISTER: There was a discussion between somebody in my office yes and Mr Reith mentioned that this morning. Well self evidently we couldn’t understand it.

JOURNALIST: Did you ask him….[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: Why not….I beg your pardon, did I ask Mr Reith to go public? No I didn’t. No I didn’t ask Mr Reith to go public. He did that of his own volition. But I mean I make no bones about it. When I picked up the Australian this morning I couldn’t believe my eyes because I knew the report to be in fact wrong because I know who I speak to, I know when I’ve spoken to the Defence Minister, I knew that I’d spoken to him on the 7th of November, I knew that I’d spoken to him on the 10th of October, and I just couldn’t believe that story in the Australian this morning.

JOURNALIST: Do you regard his comments on 3AW as a complete denial….[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: Yes I do, I do.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, have you spoken to Max Moore-Wilton about this issue, [inaudible], why didn’t he do more to alert….?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course I’ve spoken to the head of my department about it and there’s nothing that he’s told me that would cause me to alter in any way anything that I’ve said. But in relation to his position and that of other people in my department it is likely that they will be called before the Senate and it’s the normal practice for public servants if they are called to the Senate to appear. I won’t try and stand in the way of normal custom because I don’t have anything to hide and I’ve said to him and I’ll say it publicly to any public servant or any defence personnel who are called before the Senate inquiry I encourage them to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and I have absolutely nothing to be concerned about in relation to that because I’ve told the truth in relation to this issue. I think the Senate inquiry will be politically motivated but it will happen because the numbers are there for it to be established and I respect the processes that are involved. In the past public servants who have been summoned and others in that position who have been summoned are obliged to attend. I won’t try in any way to depart from the conventions that apply in relation to appearances before Senate inquiries. And in those circumstances I simply say to the public service, to any of them, I say if you are required to appear you must appear and my only advice to them is to tell the truth.

JOURNALIST: In relation to the asylum seeker [inaudible] children overboard, defining moment [inaudible]. Do they deserve an apology for what they were led to believe before polling day?

PRIME MINISTER: Well that is an entirely hypothetical question. You say if it’s a defining moment. I mean I’ve already expressed a view to you that what was, on the asylum seeker issue, defining to people was whether they agreed with our tough policy on border protection or they didn’t. That’s what people voted on.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah well I mean you’re offering me a view which you are entitled to have. You’ve asked me a question, your question was hypothetical. I’ve put it in the context of how I see the issue.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, you questioned the potency of the pictures a few minutes ago. You said it was up to the public to decide how potent those images were. Surely there’s no stronger issue than…..

PRIME MINISTER: No I was talking about the video. The video’s different from the pictures.

JOURNALIST: Do you acknowledge that….?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I mean I’m sorry your question is not right. I mean the video…what I was talking about of people making up their own minds that was the video, it was not the photographs.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] the pictures were….

PRIME MINISTER: The question was not about that. The question was about my discussion with Mr Reith and Mr Scrafton on the night of the 7th of November and the subject matter of that discussion was the contents of the video and what it indicated. And what I said let me repeat is after discussing it with Mr Scrafton, he expressed a view… he described what it showed, he said it would be inconclusive as to whether people thought it showed, you know, provided evidence of people being thrown over. I mean that was his view. I hadn’t seen it and I was relying on what he said and the decision, I mean I had formed the view by then that the video ought to be released and of course it was released.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, did Max Moore-Wilton tell you when he learned about the doubts about the original advice to you and what he did to pursue that?

PRIME MINISTER: He wasn’t aware of anything that was covered in that report until after it sort of emerged in the inquiry.

JOURNALIST: So during the election campaign…[Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: No, he didn’t. He did not say anything…he did not at any stage during the election campaign, let’s be clear about this, at no stage during the election campaign did Max express to me in any form or shape any view that the original advice was wrong.

JOURNALIST: But did he have that view? I mean, did somebody…

PRIME MINISTER: No, he didn’t. He subsequently told me he didn’t have that view until later.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what do you think of opinion polls which are showing [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean, opinion polls go up and down and Morgan doesn’t have a very good track record in recent times. Look, I would expect that some people would…I accept that on something like this and particularly when you have political division in the country that’s more or less 50/50, people tend to follow the party of their own allegiance and, you know, on something like this Labor supporters would tend to agree with Simon Crean and Liberal supporters would tend to agree with me. But look, no Prime Minister worth his or her salt is going to be governed from day-to-day by opinion polls and I think a lot of people in your profession from time to time say that I shouldn’t be influenced by opinion polls. So I think I’ll take your advice on this occasion and not be influenced by anything the polls say. I can only speak the truth and the truth is that I was not told that the original advice was wrong. That’s a finding and nothing that will happen over the weeks ahead is going to alter that because it’s true and I wouldn’t be saying it otherwise. I haven’t lied to the Australian people about this and I don’t intend to change in the future. The statements I made on the 7th and 8th or 9th of October were based on the advice we had received and I think that advice was tendered in good faith and it was used in good faith. Subsequently, as the reports now reveal, there were exchanges at a departmental level. The report discloses why the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet didn’t take the matter further after the photographs had been released. And it’s the report itself that says I wasn’t told. You don’t have to accept my assurance on that, go and look at the report. I mean, if it’s good enough to accept what the report says about the doubts being communicated further down, if you accept that because it’s in the report, why don’t you accept the report’s finding that I was never told by my Department and Mr Ruddock was never told by his.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] should be disciplined?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I was asked about the attitude I had towards my Department and, indeed, public servants generally on Neil Mitchell this morning and I expressed a view that given that they have to appear, are likely to appear before a Senate inquiry I don’t think it’s fair to them for me to be expressing a view about their behaviour in relation to this matter. I think that could be…it would be unfair to them because they’ll be asked questions and I think it’s better that, beyond repeating what I’ve said this morning, it’s better I not say anything further except to make the general observation that I could well understand in the nature of the hurly burly of a difficult situation like this, I can well understand how different versions of events can emerge, I can well understand that.

JOURNALIST: Do you think it suggests public servants were too nervous to tell their Ministers [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: No, no I don’t think it suggests that at all. I think this argument that in some way the military has been politicised is absurd. The military and the public service has not been politicised on this issue. This is a very difficult issue and it’s an issue where there is enormous hostility to the Government in many sections of the media as evidenced by what I think is a quite outrageous headline in The Australian this morning but different views within the community. I think the public service is doing its best in a very difficult situation and what I mean by that is that this is a difficult situation for the country. I don’t enjoy the fact that we have to have people in mandatory detention. Anybody who thinks I like that is wrong. I don’t like it at all. But at the moment there isn’t an alternative and if there was an effective national interest alternative then it would have been embraced by me a long time go, Jennifer, and I don’t like this at all but I don’t believe there’s any alternative and I don’t intend to be deflected from the maintenance of this policy by a very strong campaign. Now, can I say again what I’ve…the remarks I made about the children overboard were based on advice I had and they were justified by that advice. A few days after I’d made the initial remarks I stopped talking about the issue myself and I only returned to it in response to questions. And you will recall on the eve of the election campaign doubts arose about the photographs and the video and the juxtaposition of the photographs to the alleged children overboard incident and the sinking of the vessel the following day. Now, that was the context in which all of that material arose and I dealt with that and it’s in the context of that that I’ve made the comments.

Now, I regret obviously that, you know, in the light of what’s emerged that that information wasn’t available at the time but it wasn’t and I understand why it wasn’t. It doesn’t alter the fact, though, that I wasn’t told. And in the end, I mean, people are playing fast and loose with my reputation. Newspaper headlines contain words like ‘lie’. A lie is when you deliberately state something to be untrue or you deliberately omit something that you ought to tell people. Now, I have not been guilty of either of those offences and quite understandably I have a strong view about it.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] was fairly unambiguous, why do you think Mr Reith [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, I don’t know. I did not ask the question. I’m not going to say it was unambiguous. All I can say is that that headline was to me an amazing headline given my sure…

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: You asked a question, let me finish it. My sure and certain knowledge of having had discussions with Mr Reith. I mean, to suggest, as one of the questions and the answer did in The Australia that they had no discussions, that Mr Reith and I had had no discussions about this matter, I mean, that is the most self-evidently absurd bit of media commentary on this whole thing. I mean, we would be absolutely failing in our duty if we hadn’t discussed this matter between ourselves.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on October the 10th at a press conference the question was put to you that doubts had been raised [inaudible] that you [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: I dealt with that in the House yesterday. That was the question that provoked my discussion with Mr Reith that day from Ballarat about the release of the photographs. Okay.

JOURNALIST: And then a whole month went by.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you say a whole month, yes, it did because as the report revealed the release of the photographs in the eyes of the officials in my Department indicated that there was no reason to maintain further doubt. I mean, I’m not saying that, I’m just repeating what other people have said. And of course a whole month went by. It went out of my mind, quite honestly, because we were in the middle of an election campaign and I wasn’t asked any…

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I wasn’t asked…well, it was 16 days and I wasn’t asked any further questions. Thank you.

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