An unprecedented political crisis confronts the Federal Government on two fronts today, threatening to severely damage its political effectiveness and hasten the departure of the Prime Minister, John Howard.
The Governor-General, Peter Hollingworth, leaves today for a three-day official visit to New Zealand, leaving behind him an ongoing controversy over his handling of child sex abuse allegations in the Brisbane Anglican church diocese. There are now widespread calls for Hollingworth’s resignation. It is difficult to see how he can survive much longer, but John Howard faces an exquisite dilemma in that he probably does not want to be the first prime minister to dismiss a governor-general.
The more damaging problem for the government is the revelation by Air Marshal Angus Houston, the Acting Head of the Defence Force, to the Senate Estimates Committee that former Defence Minister Peter Reith was told on November 7 that there was uncertainty about the children overboard allegations.
Houston told the Committee that photographs the government had touted as evidence were actually taken a day after the incident. The Committee also heard that Reith’s office was told on October 10 that no children were in the water during the incident.
The problem for Howard is that he and Reith have maintained that they were not told. They admit to discussing the matter on the evening of November 7. Whether Reith failed to tell Howard, or whether Howard and Reith are both lying about what they knew, the affair only highlights the obvious: that the government cynically exploited the asylum seekers issues during the election and wasn’t too worried about the facts getting in the way.
The disturbing feature of the affair is the exposure of the administrative modus operandi of the highest levels of the Australian Public Service and the Military. To what degree has the bureaucracy been cowed by a government which has cut a swathe through its ranks? To what extent have public servants become allied, willingly or unwillingly, with the political objectives of the government?
- Listen to Air Marshal Angus Houston’s Remarks About Reporting To Peter Reith On Children Overboard
- Air Marshal Houston’s Report Of Peter Reith’s Response
- Admiral Chris Barrie, Chief of the Defence Force, Backs Howard