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Thursday, 21 February 2002
Page: 738

Mr CREAN (Leader of the Opposition) (3:13 PM) —by leave—I move:

That this House censure the Prime Minister for the cover up of the children overboard affair as revealed by:

(1) the startling new information that the former Minister for Defence Mr Reith was advised by the Acting Chief of the Defence Forces on November 7 that children were not thrown overboard;

(2) the failure of Mr Reith to immediately correct the public record;

(3) the failure of the Prime Minister to truthfully detail the nature of his conversations with Mr Reith on the night of 7 November 2001, in which they discussed the veracity of the claim that children had been thrown overboard; and

(4) the failure of the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Mr Max Moore-Wilton, to tell the truth to a Senate Estimates Committee on Monday that he had been informed the previous Friday of the conversation between Mr Reith and the Acting Chief of the Defence Force.

This is a government in crisis. This is a government at war with itself, at war with its officials and at war with the truth. This is the story of Admiral Barrie, the man who was not there, and Air Marshal Houston, the man who knew too much. We now know that by the evening of 7 November all of the major players in this drama knew that the children had not been thrown overboard and that the photographs used previously to justify the claim were selectively and deceitfully chosen. They in fact portrayed a completely different circumstance.

The Prime Minister claimed on 8 November that he believed the children were thrown overboard, and he is still sticking to that advice, but this is what I believe really happened on 7 and 8 November. The coalition realise the election is slipping away from them. They need a distraction that brings the focus of the last few days back onto their key issue, border protection, and they realise the best way to do this is to release the video that supposedly shows asylum seekers throwing children overboard. Acting CDF Air Marshal Angus Houston rings Mr Reith at midday on the 7th, a call that was witnessed by Brigadier Bornholt, the man who will soon command Australian forces in Afghanistan. In the middle of the day, that phone call takes place. It is verified by Brigadier Bornholt, and it says this:

... there was nothing to suggest that women and children had been thrown into the water.

There was silence for quite a while, we are told from the Senate estimates, when Air Marshal Houston was asked about this:

... it seemed to me he was stunned, surprised.

That was what Air Marshal Houston said of Peter Reith's response at the other end of the phone. Well he might be stunned because this had blown out of the water every fabrication that this government had perpetrated on the Australian electorate every day before. But Peter Reith knew the problem with this was that the Prime Minister was attending the National Press Club the next day and the Prime Minister would be asked about this very question. He knew that he had to pass that information on to the Prime Minister, because he also knew that, under the ministerial code of conduct, it was his requirement to correct the record at the earliest possible opportunity when information came to him that showed that what he had previously said was incorrect. What did Peter Reith do, if we are to believe the Prime Minister? He did not pass it on.

If this is a person that does not comply with the code of conduct, he does not deserve to have consultancy access to any minister in this government. If this person receives information that shows that what he was saying publicly was incorrect, how can he represent honesty in this place anymore? This is a discredited man, and yet the Prime Minister stands up here and says that he is an honourable man! What is your definition of honour, Prime Minister: a person that receives information showing that a fundamental claim being made by the government is incorrect, told by the head of his defence forces? This is the then Minister for Defence: the acting head of defence forces tells him, `Minister, your story is wrong,' and Peter Reith ignores it.

What I also believe then happened is that, when he was stunned and surprised, after pausing, he pushed on with the claim that the video must be released. This is the person who elsewhere in the report, when told that the video did not support his claim, said, `Well, we'd better not see the video, ought we?' That is what he said in the report—and this is a man of honour, Prime Minister? This is a man you were proud to have in your cabinet? This is your right-hand man during the election campaign perpetrating this fraud on the Australian people? Don't talk honour to me: it is a disgrace, and you know it. This person has disgraced his office and he has disgraced your government, and the circumstance of this is that you are now relying on this person as your defence. This is the firewall that you hope will not crack, because your office one is cracked and the Defence Force's has cracked and I think, with Max Moore-Wilton, so has the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's.

Whether this information was passed on to the Prime Minister then or later in the day I will come to, but I do believe this information would have found its way into the Prime Minister's office. It is communicated to his office, and I also believe that Miles Jordana, the Prime Minister's adviser on foreign affairs, is sent out with the vacuum cleaner. `We've got trouble here,' the Prime Minister says to Miles. `We've got trouble, Miles. Get out the vacuum cleaner and see what you can suck up to save my hide. I've got to go to the Press Club tomorrow. See what evidence you can find so that I can continue to perpetrate this lie.'

So Miles Jordana is sent out with the vacuum cleaner to suck up that evidence so that he, the Prime Minister, does not have to take any notice of the information he knows his Minister for Defence has. Miles Jordana then contacts Prime Minister and Cabinet, seeking the sit reps reports. That evening he is also informed by the Office of National Assessments' director-general that the ONA report is discredited because it is actually based on media reports and ministerial statements.

He is also informed, we know, by Jane Halton that she has become aware of speculation that the photographs supposedly of asylum seekers throwing their children overboard were not about that event at all. Jane Halton also rings the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Mr Max Moore-Wilton, and we know she leaves a message on his answering machine telling him that she is aware of the speculation. But Max Moore-Wilton later claims that he does not know whether or not children went overboard, despite the fact that he even attests, as recently as Monday in the Senate estimates, that he knew nothing about the changed circumstances, despite the fact that he was informed the previous Friday that there was no evidence for such a claim.

The best that Mr Jordana, the Prime Minister's office and other advisers can come up with out of this vacuum cleaner is the 7 October advice. They have sucked everything else up, but all of that proves what Reith should have told him: the only document that this government can rely on is something written on 7 October when the allegations were first made. That is the only skerrick of evidence that this Prime Minister has. It is his fig leaf, and it is a pretty pathetic fig leaf, Prime Minister.

That information of 7 October, we now know—and it is recorded—does say the words `women and children overboard'. But we also know from all of the information that that very same day the same group of people that wrote that advice to you was told there was no evidence, and not only that day but every day subsequently ministerial adviser after ministerial adviser told that this information was wrong. Whether it was Mr Scrafton, whether it was Mr Hampton or whether it was Mr O'Leary—we know that Jane Halton found out about it; she headed up the task force and we know she communicated it to Max Moore-Wilton.

Prime Minister, do you really believe that the Australian public will buy your line that you were entitled to rely on the document of 7 October, when every other piece of evidence since discredits it? Is that what you are saying to the Australian public, Prime Minister—that you are in this position where you have retreated inside the only firewall you have, one document on 7 October, which the authors knew was incorrect that very day? Do you expect the Australian people to believe that everyone else in your government knew a different story, everyone but you? Prime Minister, I say again: I do not believe you, and I do not think the Australian public believes you. You cannot have a situation and pretend to lead a credible government when everyone in your government knows the story is wrong except you. It beggars belief; yet that is the story that you want the Australian public to accept.

What the Prime Minister needed to do was to get himself through the election campaign. He tries to make out that he was never asked another question on this. I think he keeps quoting 10 to 26 October. He is wrong on that too because he did mention it subsequent to that, and so did many of his ministers. It is a nonsense argument to say that the `kids overboard' issue was not pursued by them during the campaign. The Treasurer raised it, and he is a member of the National Security Committee of cabinet. You would expect someone who sat on that committee to have access to the information. What information did the Treasurer rely on? Was he prepared to rely only on that 7 October document? The Australian public deserves better from this government than mere reliance on one document that was shown to be discredited and that was contradicted by every other piece of advice that filtered through to this government.

The Prime Minister goes along to the Press Club the very next day and claims that he has checked as recently as the night before and that nothing he had contradicted the ONA report, despite the fact that his Minister for Defence was told, despite the fact that his senior foreign affairs adviser was told, despite the fact that the head of the task force was told, despite the fact that the head of his department was told and despite the fact that officers within the office of the Minister for Defence were told—and the Prime Minister says he has checked! What sort of checking is that, Prime Minister? There is no-one else left to check with. If you did not check with them, who the hell did you check with? That is the question that you have to answer because you cannot get away with simply saying that you did not need to check because nothing had come to you that contradicted the original advice.

The Prime Minister is also very clever with the words. If you listen to all of his answers, he talks of `advice'. What does `advice' mean? It means `written advice'. He has one piece of written advice and his argument is that there is no other written advice to contradict the original one. I heard the minister for immigration give this pathetic explanation on Sunday when he said the original advice was communicated orally to him but that there was no subsequent advice in writing to contradict it. No longer do we have core and non-core promises from this government; we now have oral and written commitments. I say to the Prime Minister: every time you make an oral commitment to the Australian people, put it in writing, because they can never believe you again. If your standard now is that you can rely on something that is a falsehood if it is spoken to you but you cannot rely on the correction until it is written, you are debasing the forms on which good government is run in this country.

Those are the standards that you are lowering your government to. The Prime Minister is not only prepared to condone ministers breaking time and again his ministerial code; he is now prepared to allow those same people in retirement to come back into the parliament as lobbyists for private industry in contracts with the government. That is corruption extended. I said the other day that this is a government that has lied, spied and denied; it has now given its former ministers a ticket to ride. This is a government that is prepared to condone untruths and is prepared to ignore the truthfulness when it comes forward.

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition is aware that he cannot imply that the government has lied.

An opposition member—But they can confirm we did!

The SPEAKER —I will take the same action, as the Leader of the Opposition knows, that I have consistently continued to take this week.

Mr CREAN —Today the Prime Minister's defence to all of the allegations coming from the Senate that show that Minister Reith and government advisers were told that there was no evidence is to hide behind Admiral Barrie. It is true Admiral Barrie is Chief of the Defence Force, but when this issue took place he was not in the country; the Acting Chief of the Defence Force was. Prime Minister, by your own standards, if you say you have to take advice and you take advice from the senior defence adviser to the country, when he is out of the country you have to take it from the next senior defence head. So by your own standards, Prime Minister, you had to take notice of what Air Marshal Houston had to say. It is only certain heads of defence that you want to rely on, isn't it, Prime Minister? It may well be that Admiral Barrie does think that `kids overboard' might have happened. The trouble is that no-one else who was reporting to him did. The cable that has been tabled today puts that clearly. Admiral Barrie tabled a cable from HMAS Adelaide, the vessel that had to go to the distress of these people in the water. In two parts of this document there is emphasis on:

... small child in a life jacket and preparing to throw small child overboard. Child not thrown overboard.

And then it says:

Male SUNCs in view of wheelhouse threaten to throw women and children overboard—this did not occur.

There you have it, Prime Minister. You are trying to rely simply on what Admiral Barrie believed, but that is not good enough. You have to rely on the hard evidence that comes to you and your government. So does Admiral Barrie, I would suggest, because Admiral Barrie has a cable from his own vessel that says there was no evidence. Doesn't he believe them? Prime Minister, this defence of yours is shot to pieces.

The final point that I make goes to Max Moore-Wilton. This is the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In a Senate estimates committee last Monday, this is the question that was asked of him by Senator Faulkner:

Could I ask you if you would not mind telling us, very precisely, when you became aware that there was no evidence that children had been thrown overboard ...

That was asked on Monday. Max Moore-Wilton said:

I have no recollection of being told that there was no evidence of children being thrown overboard ...

Yet yesterday, in a Senate estimates committee, we have evidence that shows that Max Moore-Wilton was advised of that very fact again on Friday. So Max Moore-Wilton, the head of the Prime Minister's department, is told on Friday that there is no evidence. He goes to the Senate estimates committee and says he has no advice to that effect. I think that is called misleading the Senate. The Prime Minister tries to mock the Senate. Yet today I heard John Howard say when he was asked the question, `Why didn't you, Prime Minister, come into the House and correct the record when Senator Hill had passed on this information that we are talking about?' at the press conference, `Oh, because I knew it was going to happen in the Senate.' That means that he cannot tell the truth in here; only the Senate can tell it on his behalf. (Time expired)

The SPEAKER —Is the motion seconded?

Ms Macklin —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak