'Children Overboard' Scandal Resurfaces
Long-standing claims that Australian Prime Minister John Howard deliberately misled the Australian public during the 2001 election campaign over the now infamous "children overboard" affair received further credence following an ex-senior Defense Department advisor's letter to The Australian in August 2004.
Mike Scrafton, then departmental liaison officer for the Minister for Defense Peter Reith has claimed that on the night of November 7, 2001, just days before the general election, he spoke to the Prime Minister by mobile phone on three separate occasions. Scrafton alleges that, in these conversations, he detailed the lack of evidence for Howard's assertion that on October 7, illegal refugees en route to Australia had threatened to and in some cases had thrown their children into the ocean after their boat was intercepted by the HMAS Adelaide. The government argued this act was a means of intimidating the authorities into granting them asylum.
Described at the time by then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock as "some of the most disturbing practices I've come across in public life," and with Howard later stating, "I don't want people like that in Australia. Genuine refugees don't do thatthey hang on to their children," the bizarre claim though later shown to be completely without foundation became part of the government's re-election strategy.
The Howard government, sensing the electorate's deep-seated fear of a wave of illegal immigrants arriving on Australian shores, used navy and coastal patrol vessels to aggressively turn back refugee ships, ignoring their obligations to give aid under international law. Government members exaggerated the "children overboard" incident to demonise asylum seekers, misinform the electorate and divide the Opposition Labor party right up until election day.
Authors David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, in their book Dark Victory (Allen & Unwin 2003) argue, "Whatever the Liberals would later say about this campaign, there was no doubt the party saw border protection as its most potent vote-winnera fortune was spent hammering the message home. The party's federal director, Lynton Crosby, would cite the co-ordination of the message in advertisements, posters and in the press as evidence of the campaign discipline he believed brought the party victory."
Largely as a result of making border security one of the Howard government's central policy planks, the Liberal/National coalition went on to win the 2001 election. The "children overboard" incident has since become one of the most controversial episodes in Australian political history.
Though the Defense Department had revised its earlier opinion on the incident well before Election Day, Howard has continued to claim he had acted in good faith and was not made aware of the Department of Defense's altered stance until after the election on November 10. However Scrafton, who was prevented by the government from appearing before a later Senate enquiry into the affair, disputes this version of events in his letter,
"On the evening of November 7, 2001 after having viewed the [video] tape from the HMAS Adelaide I spoke to the Prime Minister by mobile phone on three occasions. In the course of those calls I recounted to him that: a) the tape was at best inconclusive as to whether there were any children in the water but certainly didn't support the proposition that the event had occurred; b) that the photographs that had been released in early October were definitely of the sinking of the refugee boat on October 8 and not of any children being thrown into the water; and c) that no-one in Defense [Department] that I dealt with on the matter still believed that any children were thrown overboard."
Howard has admitted speaking to Scrafton on the night in question however has denied deliberately misleading the public stating, "my sole purpose in ringing him on November 7, 2001 was to obtain his assessment of the video [of the stricken vessel] which he had just viewed. He gave me a description of the video and expressed the view it was inconclusive." Mr Howard denied he discussed photos taken of the children overboard and claims he was not made aware of the change in the Defense Department stance on the issue. However this appears to contradict a statement made by Howard in an interview on ABC's Four Corners current affairs program in 2002 when he advised the conversations with Scrafton had referred to "the debate about the discussion about the photographs."
Article continued in http://expage.com/childrenoverboard1