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Tuesday, 19 February 2002
Page: 416


Mr CREAN (Leader of the Opposition) (2:07 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Prime Minister, were you told at any stage before the election, either in writing or orally, that there was any doubt about the veracity of the source of the ONA report, which you relied on at the Press Club to back your `children overboard' claim?


Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —It is true that I quoted from that ONA report at the National Press Club—yes, I did. It is also true that—as was revealed, of which I was aware, in the estimates last night—a minute was sent on 7 November to Miles Jordana in my office, and it was addressed to Miles. This was responding to a request from Mr Jordana consequent upon a request by me that we refresh our memories on documents relating to the `children overboard' issue so that I could be properly briefed for the National Press Club. It was not, as was incorrectly alleged in some reports this morning, a request for fresh documentation. What simply happened was that I said to Miles, `We've got the Press Club on tomorrow. Will you go over the material? I would like to see any written material in relation to the children overboard, because I will undoubtedly get a question about the issue,' because it had been in the papers in the morning. There was a paragraph which stated:

We are not yet able to identify the source of the information in the ONA report, though it could have been based on the minister's statements. But there may also have been Defence reporting, for which we are still searching.

That was what was said in the—


Mr Crean —So there were doubts.


Mr HOWARD —I am reading from the ONA note. People will make their own judgments about that. They will also make their own judgments about the fact that, quite separately from the ONA report—and I have released this document today, and I will table a copy of it—there was a fax to me at Kirribilli House on the evening of Sunday, 7 October of a document entitled `Options for handling unauthorised arrivals'. This document was also sent to Mr Reith and Mr Ruddock, and it states:

Once in the contiguous zone, the HMAS Adelaidefired volleys in front of the vessel and boarded it and returned it to International waters. This has been met with attempts to disable the vessel, passengers jumping into the sea and passengers throwing their children into the sea.

That quote is contained in the task group document. I will say this to the Leader of the Opposition, as I said to the media earlier: if this document had been given to me in the refreshing process a month later, I would have quoted from it in preference to the ONA report. I was not, as indicated—and as I indicated in the press conference—apprised by my office of the paragraph in the minute from Jones to Jordana.


Mr Crean —Why not?


Mr HOWARD —You can ask me a second question on that, if you want to—and a third and a fourth; I do not mind. I say to the Leader of the Opposition: I am happy to stand here as long as you like and answer your questions on this subject because this government has got nothing to hide on this issue. The reality is that you were done over in the election and you still cannot get over it—that is your problem. You were beaten fair and square in an election. This is the 2002 version of Evatt's outrage after the 1954 election on the Petrov affair. I wonder when he is going to write to a foreign minister about it, Mr Speaker!

The facts are very simple. The ONA report was relied upon by me at the Press Club because it was the only document that I had been given. If I had been given the other document, I would have quoted from that. I was not told until after the election that the ONA report had been based on media reports. I was not told that, and, as I indicated to the press today, if I had known that before the press conference, I would not have used it. But it would not, in my view, have altered the veracity of the claims that I made.



Mr HOWARD —The Leader of the Opposition interjects again, `Why?' The reason why it would not have altered the veracity is that I had a document with the masthead of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, sent to me on 7 October—the very day that Mr Ruddock made his statement—and it contained an absolutely unambiguous statement that children were thrown overboard by the passengers.

It also serves to remind us that the following day this vessel sank at the hands of the passengers, not at the hands of the Royal Australian Navy. As a result, the lives of all of those children were put at risk. It was only the actions of the Royal Australian Navy that saved their lives. Most Australians are aware that if you deliberately sink a vessel with a lot of children on it you are really putting the lives of those children at risk, and I think that is reprehensible behaviour.

Honourable members interjecting


The SPEAKER —I would remind all members of their determination to raise the standards in the House and of my determination to enforce the standing orders.


Mr HOWARD —Very briefly, I said that I was going to table the document of 7 October. As I indicated earlier this morning at a news conference, I omitted a section of that report because it bears on relations between Australia and Indonesia. It does not have any relevance to the issue now before the House. I took the view that it would not be helpful to that relationship, which I know is close to the heart of those who sit opposite, as it is to many on this side of the House. If the Leader of the Opposition wants to view the material that has been omitted, I am perfectly happy to make it available to him.