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Thursday, 21 February 2002
Page: 742

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (3:34 PM) —This third censure motion in this two-week period was meant to be the day to end all days. This was going to be the day when it was all brought together. The government was going to be put under pressure, there were going to be ministerial nerves all along the front bench, the Leader of the Opposition was going to be able to point unambiguously to some evidence given before the Senate estimates committee—and all he is reduced to is this pathetic argument about the answer that Max Moore-Wilton gave, clearly in the context of advice to the government before 10 November. That is all he is left with, that is the only skerrick of an argument he is left with, and he cannot even finish that within the allotted time. The reality is that the great Exocet missile that is meant to be represented by Air Marshal Houston's evidence has in fact been torpedoed by what Admiral Barrie had to say yesterday.

The Leader of the Opposition says that all I am left with is the testimony of Admiral Barrie. I do not regard that as all I am left with. But I will tell you what: if it comes to official advice from the defence forces, it is not a bad bit of evidence to be left with. He is, after all, the most senior serving officer in the Australian military forces. While I am on the subject of the Australian military forces, I want to make it very clear that the people who, throughout this very difficult issue, have behaved with enormous capability and enormous distinction have been the men and women of the Australian defence forces.

It is an indisputable fact that, back on 7 October, we received advice. That advice was conveyed to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, who in turn conveyed it to me. It was conveyed to the Minister for Defence. We believed it to be true, we relied on the advice, we made the public statements; and I never received, and Mr Ruddock never received, any advice from either of our departments suggesting that the original advice was wrong. Nothing that has been said—the thousands of words that have been uttered by the Leader of the Opposition and those around him over the past few days—has shaken that one unassailable fact. And nothing has apparently shaken the belief of the Chief of the Defence Force, as enunciated in the Senate last night, that his original advice ought to stand. He said the original advice ought to stand. He said:

And I never sought to recant that advice that I originally gave the minister.

That is pretty powerful, isn't it? Here is the Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Barrie, the man right at the top, the person who says, `If you want Defence with a capital D, I am it.' He says in his evidence to the Senate:

... I never sought to recant that advice that I originally gave the minister.

I know this is very disappointing to the opposition. They probably thought that they would have it all on their own as a result of the evidence that was given yesterday. But the reality is that there are a number of people around who are still prepared to assert that the original advice ought to stand.

An opposition member—Not many.

Mr HOWARD —I would believe Admiral Barrie before I believed you, and I think that would apply to a very, very large number of people. The task group report that was cleared through the task group chaired by Jane Halton and delivered to me, Mr Ruddock and Mr Reith on 7 October contained the unambiguous statement that children had been thrown overboard.

Interestingly enough, as I pointed out yesterday, on 8 November, in the middle of the doorstop that he gave, which was the subject of a lot of media coverage on the evening of 8 November, Vice Admiral Shackleton, who is the head of the Navy, was asked whether the Navy had altered the original advice that it gave to the minister. He said, `No, no, we haven't.' Can I repeat that: `No, no, we haven't.' In other words, you have the head of the Defence Force, Admiral Barrie, and the head of the Navy on 8 November both saying that they had not altered the original advice that was given to the minister. So I say to those who interject and say, `Admiral Barrie is on his own,' that Admiral Barrie is not on his own. Bear in mind that this is all about alleged deceit before the election. I will come to the `we wuz robbed' plea. `We wuz robbed,' those opposite say. I will come to that before I sit down. You have a very clear situation, with Admiral Barrie as late as last night saying that he has never recanted the advice that he has given and Vice Admiral Shackleton on 8 November making it very clear that as far as he was concerned they had never altered the advice. I think that that represents an extremely strong case.

I also refer to the statement issued today by the former Minister for Defence. I know that the former defence minister used to get under your skin. I know that you did not like the former defence minister; he used to hit you where it hurt, politically. I know that. To borrow Ron Boswell's slogan, he may not be pretty but he was pretty effective. He was very effective. Not only was he an effective defence minister but also he was particularly effective at cleaning up the Australian waterfront. As a result of that, we have a far more effective waterfront. In his statement, Mr Reith notes the evidence that was given by Admiral Barrie last night. Just in case you have not heard it, would you like me to repeat it? Do you want to hear it again?

Government members—Yes.

Mr HOWARD —Admiral Barrie said:

It was my view that the photographs were simply part of evidentiary material. The really important aspects of this are witness statements and perceptions, and that initial report, as far as I was concerned, ought to stand. And I never sought to recant that advice that I originally gave the minister.

Mr Reith goes on to say:

I can confirm that I did speak with Air Marshal Angus Houston on Wednesday, 7 November 2001.

I had asked that Air Marshal Houston contact me ...

Listen to this: Mr Reith had in fact asked that Air Marshal Houston ring him. He was not rung in pursuit by Air Marshal Houston; he in fact asked Houston to ring him as a result of the reports that had appeared in the paper that morning. This is not the behaviour of somebody who is engaged in a cover-up; this is the behaviour of a minister following up a report in the Australian of the morning of 7 November. So he sends a message to Houston to ring him, and this is what he has to say:

My recollection of our conversation is that he had that morning examined some material in the Chief of the Defence Force's office which had caused him to deduce that as there was no evidence to support the claim that children had been thrown overboard then the event had not happened.

Mr Reith goes on to say this, and it is very material in the light of the evidence given by Admiral Barrie last night:

Such a conclusion contradicted advice provided to me previously by the Australian Defence Force.

This is the minister speaking as at 7 November, saying that advice that the children had not been thrown overboard contradicted the advice that he had received from the Defence Force. Yet others opposite would have us believe that Defence had concluded by 10 October that there was no evidence that children had been thrown overboard. The reality is that Admiral Barrie last night rejected that finding. Not only did Admiral Barrie say that he had never recanted his original advice but last night in Senate estimates Admiral Barrie said that he rejected the principal finding of General Powell's report that by 10 October Defence had concluded that no children had been thrown overboard. And that is the selfsame reference that is made in Peter Reith's statement, speaking of his state of knowledge at 7 November. Mr Reith goes on:

I asked him questions to the effect whether all the information was available, including statements from defence personnel and whether there had been a thorough investigation and a properly concluded view formed.

I was concerned that I had not had the opportunity to speak to the Chief of the Defence Force and had not had a proper detailed and conclusive report.

Although he had a report on the video—

this is Reith speaking of Air Marshal Houston—

he had not seen the video.

That is, Air Marshal Houston had not seen the video. Mr Reith goes on:

I immediately arranged for a person from my office to view the video. I was still under the impression that the video supported earlier advice and I thought it should be released. Later on that day I recommended the release of the video to the Prime Minister.

As you know, that was released, despite its inconclusive nature. Once again, that is hardly the evidence of men trying to cover things up; rather the reverse—the evidence of people trying to be completely transparent with the Australian public. It is also worth saying that Mr Reith goes on with his statement:

I am certain I did not discuss Air Marshal Angus Houston's comments with the Prime Minister.

Mr HOWARD —If something does not suit the argument of the Leader of the Opposition—

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition will extend the same courtesy to the Prime Minister as he has extended to him.

Mr HOWARD —You always know when an opposition leader has had a bad censure— he interrupts the Prime Minister. It is a telltale sign. I have had that experience myself. On one or two occasions when I was opposition leader I was not too flash on the old censure and I used to interrupt Bob Hawke a bit too much. It would be a bit of a giveaway. I tell you what, if you are interrupting a prime minister in your first two weeks as opposition leader, you haven't got off to a very good start—that is all I can say.

This has not been a very good day for the Leader of the Opposition. This has been a very, very bad day. This was going to be the big one. We had all the media on the side and they are all trying to even it up. We had the member for Brand on his feet saying: `I was robbed; I should be in the Lodge. It is all terrible and it is all deceptive.' But it has all rather come apart, because Admiral Barrie, who just happens to be the best person to be giving advice to the government, because he's the boss, did not quite agree with everything that the Leader of the Opposition had to say. It has all rather run into a bit of sand. It really brings us back to the reality.

As the member for Mayo, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, said in his very fine answer, the real deceivers on this issue are those members of the Labor Party who are now trying to change their policy. The member for Fremantle really gave it away when she said, `Look, I was assured that, once we got into office, we'd then change the policy.' I would like to know whether that assurance was given by the Leader of the Opposition. I wonder whether it was given by the member for Brand. Was it given by the member for Jagajaga? Was it given by Senator Faulkner? There are a whole lot of fraudulently elected members of the Labor Party on the other side. There are all of those people who did not believe in our border protection policy but they won by wafer thin margins by pretending that they did. They ought to go back to the people. They talk about us having stolen the election. They stole their re-election by pretending that they, after all, were representing people on a border protection policy that was quite different.

The last election was fought and won by the coalition on a large number of issues. It was won very convincingly, and I know it still cuts to the quick. It still hurts that that great political juggernaut, the Australian Labor Party—those great political geniuses out at Sussex Street, the wonder kids from Queensland, the glimmer twins—should shut up about policy, shut up about everything: `Kim's a terrific bloke, Howard will shoot himself in the foot, they will self-destruct, the GST will be a disaster, don't mention policy, don't mention the war, don't say anything and we can sneak over the line.' That was their policy. It did not work and now they are searching around for somebody to blame. Can I say to the Leader of the Opposition that you have only got yourselves to blame. You lost the last election because the Australian people thought you were unfit for government. The Australian people will never think that you are fit for government until you have the courage to embrace some policies, stand on some principles, get a broadly based party and re-identify with the mainstream of the Australian community.