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Thursday, 11 September 2003
Page: 19886

Mr RUDD (2:28 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Prime Minister, is it the case that, following the resignation of Mr Wilkie from the Office of National Assessments, the Prime Minister's private office attempted to discredit Mr Wilkie by peddling the line to the press gallery that Mr Wilkie was unstable? Prime Minister, is it the case that your office apologised to Mr Wilkie for this behaviour? Is the Prime Minister now aware that the Liberal Party's Senator Johnston last night engaged in the same behaviour by describing Mr Wilkie as `very unstable' and that this followed the Prime Minister's comments in parliament this week, with respect to Mr Wilkie, that `any member of the government has a right to retaliate'? Will the Prime Minister now publicly apologise for these vicious personal attacks on Mr Wilkie and for his government's decision to play the man and not the ball?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —It is the case that a remark made by a member of my staff without my authority, which subsequently and immediately drew a reprimand, was interpreted by some members of the gallery—and I am quite happy to go through this—as reflecting on the character of the gentleman in question. When it happened I asked my chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos, to contact Mr Wilkie. Mr Sinodinos had a half-hour conversation with him—and this was immediately after Mr Wilkie had resigned from the ONA—and he assured him that the remark and any interpretation placed upon it did not carry my authority, imprimatur or urging. On my behalf he conveyed an apology for any hurt that may have been occasioned. Indeed, Mr Wilkie himself acknowledged this fact in an interview on 22 July with Caroline Overington, in which he said, inter alia:

... a guy called me, around midday, and said he was from the Prime Ministers office, and he talked to me for about half an hour, very apologetic, saying that Howard was personally very sorry that this story had been leaked by a junior person on his staff.

They told me that they would retract the story, and to its credit, the press did not follow the story or ask me about it.

That is the extent of that particular part of it. I made it very clear to my staff and colleagues that Mr Wilkie had a perfect right to resign from the ONA and there was to be absolutely no attempt to criticise him as an individual. I have no reason to believe that Mr Wilkie is acting other than in a conscientious fashion.

As far as the question of the retaliation I spoke of the other day is concerned, I was talking there of the self-evident right that I and other members of the government have to argue and hit back when we are called liars and fabricators. That is what we were called by Mr Wilkie at the inquiry being conducted by the member for Fadden's committee. That was the language that was used. No man or woman in this parliament is going to stand by silently when somebody falsely accuses them of telling lies and fabricating intelligence.

Mr Rudd —What about Senator Johnston?

The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Griffith.

Mr HOWARD —Mr Speaker, the question has been asked. These are legitimate matters for discussion and I am quite happy to discuss them. But I want to get into context what I have said about Mr Wilkie. Whenever anybody, particularly somebody who claims the sanction and authority of having been an intelligence officer, makes claims about me and my colleagues that I believe are wrong, I will argue back and criticise that person. I will deny the allegations and I will do so very vehemently.

Let us understand this: he had a right to resign. I have never accused him of behaving improperly and I have not accused him of leaking any intelligence information. I accept fully that he has a right as a citizen of this country to have a go at me, but I do not give him the right to call me a liar or a fabricator without rebuke. That is essentially it. We will go on rebuking, attacking and criticising him in defending our own reputations. As far as the remarks of my colleague in the Senate are concerned, they were made off his own bat. As soon as I heard about them I sent a message to him that they should not be repeated. They are not views that I hold and they are not views that I endorse.