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Thursday, 21 February 2002
Page: 737

Mr CREAN (3:07 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. It refers to his defence that Mr Reith has denied the substance of the Bornholt and Houston evidence from the estimates last night. Prime Minister, who would you recommend the Australian people trust in this matter: the brigadier who will shortly take command of Australia's forces in the war on terrorism or Peter Reith?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —Can I take the opportunity of saying—I know it will be on behalf of everybody—that I wish Brigadier Bornholt well, and can I say in relation to all of the senior serving officers of the ADF that they have the complete confidence and support of the government. All of them have the complete confidence and support of the government. The Leader of the Opposition invites me to say whom I ask the Australian people to believe. My experience in relation to Peter Reith, and I say this quite unqualifiedly, is that I always found Peter Reith to be a man of great decency and honour.

Honourable members interjecting

Mr HOWARD —I do.

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER —The Prime Minister will be heard in silence. I will deal with anyone who interjects.

Mr HOWARD —I not only found him to be a person of decency and honour but also found him to be pretty effective. He was pretty effective in reforming the Australian waterfront—

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER —The member for Watson is warned.

Mr HOWARD —He was very effective in relation to that.

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER —The member for Brisbane is warned.

Mr HOWARD —Can I just bring the context of this back. Here we are at the end of the week and we have just had the Senate estimates and we have just had the evidence from Air Marshal Houston, a very fine serving officer. We have also had the evidence of the senior military adviser to the government. The problem for the opposition out of the Senate estimates is this. Put aside for a moment—and it will be taken into the mix— what Brigadier Bornholt said. I make no comment on that; I make no comment on what Air Marshal Houston said: they have given their evidence. But look for a moment at what Admiral Barrie said. The problem for the opposition is that you have the senior military adviser to the government—nothing can alter the fact; he actually uses the expression—saying, and I ask members of the opposition to listen to this:

I go back to my opening statement. As the CDF, I am the principal military adviser to the government and it is my view that if you talk about Defence with a capital D, I am it. I have never accepted that finding, for the reasons I have outlined.

I in fact heard Admiral Barrie last night say that he rejected the principal finding of the Powell report that, by 10 October, Defence had formed a view about the original advice. Admiral Barrie has said that he rejected the principal finding of the Powell report, but more significantly—and I repeat what I said at the beginning of question time—he said:

So far as I was concerned, the original advice of the commander of the Adelaide ought to stand. And I never sought to recant that advice that I originally gave to the minister.

That is pretty strong material in support of what the government has been saying on this issue. Admiral Barrie made one other very important point, and it reinforces an argument that I have been using over the last week.

An opposition member—What a surprise!

Mr HOWARD —Somebody interjects: `What a surprise!' What is that meant to mean? You were talking a moment ago about respect for serving officers. Are you suggesting that there is some connection between what Admiral Barrie said and the remarks that I have been making?

Mr McGauran —It was the member for Fraser.

Mr HOWARD —Yes. You are very clever about alleged interjections from this side of the House!

Mr Downer —I have never seen a member go so red.

Mr HOWARD —Yes. I repeat: Admiral Barrie made the point that you had to distinguish between photographs and other evidence. I will read this again:

But I have to say that in all I was never persuaded myself that there was compelling evidence that the initial report of the commanding officer was wrong. It was my view that the photographs were simply part of the evidentiary material. The really important aspects of this are witness statements and perceptions, and that initial report, so far as I was concerned, ought to stand.

That goes right back to the very beginning of the government's position on this. We made our claims based on what we were told on that Sunday. There were no photographs on that Sunday. The photographs did not come into it until later in the piece. The original claim had nothing to do with photographs. Admiral Barrie makes the point that what is really important was the direct evidence on the spot. It was his view last night that he still has not been given compelling evidence that that original view was wrong. The opposition case falls to the ground.