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Thursday, 14 February 2002
Page: 269

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (3:40 PM) —Mr Speaker, can I start by saying through you to the Leader of the Opposition that I do take censure motions seriously. So seriously do I take censure motions that I look in them for some substantive attack, some powerful argument, that justifies somebody in the first week that parliament has sat coming in, calling the Prime Minister a liar, calling the government liars and generally impugning the credibility and the reputation of this government. Of course I take that seriously, and I intend in the time available to me to go through the claims that have been made by the Leader of the Opposition.

Let me first of all state absolutely categorically, so there can be no doubt about it, that the original claims I made were based on advice given in good faith. They were used by me in good faith. I believed them to be true. I never received any advice from my department or from any other official or from any of my colleagues indicating that that advice was untrue. That is the statement of fact. Some people in the Australian community will choose to disbelieve that; others will choose to believe it. The genesis of this censure motion lies not in a desire by the Australian Labor Party to seek the truth but in their total inability to live with the fact that they lost the last election. That is what this resolution is all about. The Labor Party always seek an excuse. There is always a reason why their undoubted brilliance was not rewarded by the Australian people. Years ago it was an inquiry called by Prime Minister Menzies. Now it is alleged dishonesty on my part and the part of my colleagues.

Let me say, through you, Mr Speaker, to the Leader of the Opposition, that there were many reasons why the Labor Party went to defeat at the last election. One of those reasons was that the Australian people thought our policy on border protection was more believable than the policy of the Australian Labor Party. Those Australians whose votes were influenced by the border protection issue voted for us because they thought our policy on border protection was better than the policy of the Labor Party. The question of whether they believed or disbelieved the claims in relation to children overboard was quite subsidiary to the question of whether or not they supported our border protection policy. Any suggestion to the contrary is completely untrue.

Let me go through the chain of events. The chain of events is very simple. On 7 October, advice was unambiguously given to ministers—and that has been acknowledged and has never been disputed. I am accused of lying. A lie is saying something that you know to be untrue. When I made those statements immediately after 7 October I believed those statements to be true, and I received no information to disturb that belief. In those circumstances, I totally reject for the record the claim by the Leader of the Opposition that I have lied to the Australian people. That itself is a lie!

I am prepared to sit and listen to the Leader of the Opposition launch these attacks—he can go ahead. But I want to make it very plain to you, Mr Speaker, and through this parliament to the Australian people, that the statements I made were based on advice that I had received. If I had received contrary advice, I would have made that contrary advice public. I would have made it public in the same way that I have, almost without precedent, had an inquiry made. I have tabled the results of that inquiry, warts and all, for the parliament to examine.

Let me go to what seems to be the only substantive point made by the Leader of the Opposition, and that is that my department was told—so he claims in his paraphrasing—that there was doubt about the original claims. He then says that it beggars belief that my department did not pass on that information to me. That is, I think, the essence. I do not think I do the Leader of the Opposition any injustice by saying that that appears to be the gravamen of his claim—the essence of his claim against me. If in fact—

The SPEAKER —The member for Corio! The same courtesy that was extended to the Leader of the Opposition will be extended to the Prime Minister.

Mr HOWARD —Let me, therefore, go to the chain of events. I repeat what I said in question time. Page 31 said:

The chronology ... provided ... by Strategic Command ... on 10 October carries the footnote “There is no indication that children were thrown overboard. It is possible this did occur in conjunction with other SUNCs jumping overboard.” Ms Edwards—

an officer of the PM&C department—

indicated in her statement that “When the photos appeared shortly afterwards, we did not pursue this issue further as it appeared to have been clarified”.

Now that is what she said. You can say that is wrong, in error or incompetent, but it is an explanation as to why further advice was not provided to me.

I remind the Leader of the Opposition that the report that I tabled yesterday found that—it was not my opinion; it was a finding of the report. If the Leader of the Opposition relies on the report's finding to support his claim that my department was informed, he must also accept the same report's finding that the department never passed on any information to me. Now you cannot have it both ways. You cannot in one breath say, `This report shows that Howard's department was informed.' He has to then go on and acknowledge that that information was never passed on. The reason why that information was not passed on is, in fact, explained on page 31 of the report.

The reality is that, if you read this report very carefully, you will find through it evidence of great confusion—and I do not say this critically; I simply say this objectively—within the defence department regarding precisely what had happened. Bear in mind that these naval officers were dealing with very difficult circumstances. They ought to have our understanding, our respect, our support and our admiration for the very difficult circumstances that they were dealing with.

To give you an idea of the degree of conflict within Defence in relation to this issue, bear in mind that the basis of the finding of the report that my department had been informed was a footnote appended to a chronology by Strategic Command. That is the sole basis of the finding, yet page 30 of the report that I tabled yesterday contains this very interesting paragraph:

In his interview with me, AVM Titheridge—

and he is the head of Strategic Command—

indicated that he “hadn't become aware that there was doubt about the original claims until a few weeks ago when, after seeing an article in the Herald Sun of 25 November 2001 he had chased up a cable from Maritime Headquarters, but by then the inquiries (by General Powell and PM&C) were under way.”

In other words, the head of the very body whose advice was the basis of the finding that my department had been informed acknowledges that he himself was not aware of there being any doubt until some weeks after these events had happened.

I go through this again in case there is any doubt in the mind of the Leader of the Opposition. The original advice was unambiguously given. That advice was acted on and at no stage was I given any advice by ministers, by colleagues, by my department or by other officials that that original advice was wrong. In those circumstances the allegation that I lied to the Australian community falls over completely. It has no substance. It is based upon a desire of a Labor Party leader to find any excuse than the reality of political inadequacy to explain the defeat of his party at the polls on 10 November last year. That is the real origin of this motion. It is the total inability of the Australian Labor Party to come to terms with the reality of political defeat.

I deny absolutely that there was any cover-up in this situation. I deny that absolutely. Those of us who have been here a few years know that in this place you always know a censure motion lacks substance when it is laced with political commentary and media advice. There was a fair amount of political commentary in the speech given by the Leader of the Opposition. He starts giving me advice. If I want to know when to have a press conference, I will ask Tony O'Leary and not Simon Crean, because I think I will get far better advice.

I know it is hard when you do not really have an argument. I sat through question time—and I do not mind saying that I spent a bit of time studying the transcripts, I spent a bit of time going through the reports, I spent a bit of time talking to my staff; I thought I should take it very seriously and I did—and I was expecting some questions that would really expose an area of vulnerability that I had not thought of, but the whole thing centred upon this allegation in relation to my department. I have already gone through those elements of the report which indicate how my department dealt with that matter.

I know there is great hostility on the other side to the former defence minister. I know that the real reason behind that is that they still have not gotten over what he did in 1998 in relation to reforming the Australian waterfront. If you really want to find out the motive for censure motions moved in this place, they normally lie in political defeats that the Labor Party has suffered—they rarely lie in relation to the real circumstances of an issue.

In the minutes that remain in relation to this reply let me just say again that the issue of illegal immigration to this country, the issue of how to handle the challenge presented by illegal arrivals, is a very difficult one. Of course it was an issue in the last election. It was not the only issue; it was not the dominant issue; but it was a significant issue. But what people voted on at the last election was an assessment of who was more likely to more effectively protect the borders of this country. The Australian people decided on that occasion, without any doubt, that the coalition—the Liberal and National parties—were more able to effectively protect the borders of this country.

What we presented to the Australian people before the election remains the strong policy of this government. Since the election we have seen an utter vindication of all the warnings we gave the Australian people about how the Australian Labor Party would have behaved on this issue if they had won the election. We said that if Labor won the election they would change the policy. One of the fascinating things about this censure motion moved by the now Leader of the Opposition is that for most of the election campaign he and his predecessor were trying to persuade the Australian people that there was not a cigarette paper between the coalition and the Labor Party on the issue of border protection; that we were exactly the same. That is the reason why I was able to say in question time, having been through the transcripts of all my press interviews, that between 10 October and 26 October there was not one reference to the children overboard issue. In other words, for a whole 16 days of the election campaign the issue was not raised. And yet according to the Leader of the Opposition on morning radio, we campaigned every day on children overboard. The reality is that we did not. I do not even remember it being raised during the great debate.

What we did campaign on was border protection, and we made no apology for campaigning on border protection because we had a superior policy to offer. This censure motion ought to be rejected because the claim of lying has not been made out; it is a complete untruth itself. Most importantly of all, this motion should be rejected because it is born of the political frustration and anger of the Australian Labor Party and not grounded in any substantive attack on my integrity or the integrity of my government. (Time expired)

The SPEAKER —Before I recognise the member for Lalor, I require the member for Werriwa to withdraw the comment, `You lied.'

Mr Latham —I withdraw.

The SPEAKER —There are several other points that ought to be made. All members are aware that to use the term `you lied' is unparliamentary. New members may not be aware—and I have to say that I checked this with the Clerk—that Speaker Snedden has also ruled:

The consequence is that I have ruled that even though such a remark may not be about any specified person the nature of the language [the Government telling lies] is unparliamentary and should not be used at all.

I am indicating what is a part of House of Representatives Practice before I recognise the member for Lalor, not wanting to interrupt her during her debate.