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Prime Minister answers accusations about the children overboard affair.

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This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Department of the Parliamentary Library.


It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in any other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.


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Monday 16 August 2004

Prime Minister answers accusations about the children overboard affair


MARK COLVIN: But first tonight, it's the Prime Minister versus the public serv ant, as the children overboard claims from the last election are lobbed back into the debate over truth in Government. 


The public servant in question - now no longer working for the Government - is Mike Scrafton. 


Mr Scrafton's letter to The Australian this morning contradicted John Howard's long-standing claim that no one told him before the last election that evidence did not prove the children overboard claim. 


Now the Prime Minister has flatly rejected the claim that he was told the evidence did not prove that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard. 


Mike Scrafton was then an adviser to the defence minister, Peter Reith. 


The dispute over facts could even come down to an examination of mobile phone records. 


Mr Scrafton says Mr Howard rang him on his mobile three times, a few nights before the last election. Mr Howard says there were only two calls. 


Mr Scrafton says that on the third call they discussed why the peak intelligence analysis body, ONA, would have got its version so wrong. Mr Howard says there was no discussion of ONA. 


Matt Brown reports. 


MATT BROWN: The man in the middle of one of the biggest controversies of the last election, the children overboard affair has broken his silence. 


In the lead-up to the last election in November 2001 Mike Scrafton was a senior adviser to the minister for defence. And on the evening of the 7th of November he took a central role in the children overboard affair. 


MIKE SCRAFTON: I had spoken to Peter Reith earlier that afternoon who had said that he'd been speaking to the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister wanted somebody they could trust to go and have a look at the video. 


MATT BROWN: After doubts began to emerge about the Government's claim - that asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea in a bid to put the Defence Force under duress - Mike Scrafton was sent to look at a video of the encounter. Then he had a series of key conversations with John Howard. 


MIKE SCRAFTON: The Prime Minister rang me that evening. I explained to him that the video was inconclusive. It certainly didn't provide any evidence supporting the claim that children were thrown overboard. 


MATT BROWN: To back his claims, the Prime Minister also produced a report by the Office of National Assessments, an intelligence analysis agency. 


But Mike Scrafton says in their conversation, he discredited that too. 


MIKE SCRAFTON: He asked me specifically about the ONA report and how it was that he had this advice, and at the time I got the impression that he was surprised greatly that there was an inconsistency between the advice and the intelligence report. 


And I said that my understanding, from talking to people around the place, was that they were just simply picking up the minister's comments and that he really should check with ONA as to the veracity of it. 


MATT BROWN: Indeed it later emerged that this "intelligence report" used to back the Government's assertion consisted mainly of a compilation of previous claims made by Government ministers. 


But that wasn't revealed until after the Prime Minister had used it in a major speech to bolster his claims, a speech he made after Mike Scrafton says he'd already warned that the intelligence report was flimsy. 


MIKE SCRAFTON: I was surprised the following day that such unqualified weight was given to information that the Prime Minister was told was suspect. 


MATT BROWN: This afternoon, John Howard said on Southern Cross Radio that Mike Scrafton spoke to him twice, not three times and did not talk to him about the ONA report, the photos or the general view amongst defence insiders that the event had never occurred. 


HOST: Did you ask him that night how it was that your own ONA report confirmed that… 


JOHN HOWARD: No, no, I… Steve, we talked about the video. 


HOST: So you didn't ask him about it? 


JOHN HOWARD: …No, I'd know. I have no recollection at all… 


HOST: …So you dispute that version of his events? 


JOHN HOWARD: I do dispute that version, yes. 


HOST: And then you would dispute that you asked… that he said to you, 'Well you better speak to Kim Jones at the ONA.' 


JOHN HOWARD: …No, look I, I dispute, I dispute that we talked about anything other than matters related to the video. 


MATT BROWN: Just after the election, Mr Howard commissioned an internal investigation into the children overboard affair, and he says that when Mike Scrafton spoke to that internal inquiry, he didn't mention any topic of their conversations, other than the inconclusive nature of the video. 


JOHN HOWARD: So he said on December 2001 that I had spoken to him twice about the tape, and informed him that it was inconclusive. Now, in that statement he makes no reference to the fact that he told me that there was a belief in the department that children hadn't been thrown overboard, he makes no reference to the photographs. 


MATT BROWN: Mr Howard says he doubts this affair will damage his chances in the forthcoming election. 


HOST: How much of an issue is this going to be in the coming election campaign? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well I don't believe it will be, but the Labor… 


HOST: Do you think the public still… 


JOHN HOWARD: I think the public… 


HOST: … are concerned about the way your government acted before the election 


JOHN HOWARD: …Well look our critics, our critics… 


HOST: … in regard to children overboard? 


JOHN HOWARD: …our critics are. 


HOST: Public? 


JOHN HOWARD: Ah, er, well, we have critics in the public (laughs). 


MATT BROWN: The Opposition leader, Mark Latham, says John Howard owes the public an apology. 


MARK LATHAM: This is a shocking example of the Prime Minister misleading and deceiving the Australian people, in this case in the days leading up to the last federal election. 


MATT BROWN: And the Greens leader Bob Brown has called for Mr Howard to resign. 


BOB BROWN: To call for a Prime Minister to resign over a deliberate deception of the nation is a very serious matter. But it is a serious matter. This Prime Minister doesn't deserve to be in office. 


MARK COLVIN: Bob Brown, ending Matt Brown's report.