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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 13

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (10:16 AM) —I present the report of the Select Committee on the Scrafton Evidence, together with the Hansard record of proceedings.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I am pleased to speak on this report, not only as the chair of the committee but also as a member of its predecessor, the Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident, or the CMI committee as it became known. The CMI committee made significant headway in reconstructing what really happened during the so-called `children overboard' affair. But it was forced to leave some questions unanswered, primarily because of government obstruction in banning serving and former MOPS staffers and departmental liaison officers from appearing before that committee—a ban that remains in force.

The most critical question that the CMI committee could not answer conclusively was whether the Prime Minister had lied to the Australian public about whether he was advised, before the 2001 federal election, that the `children overboard' incident did not occur. As I said in my additional comments to the CMI report:

What is ... significant is that many trails lead directly to the Prime Minister's Department, his Office and to the Prime Minister himself. Whilst it has not been claimed, nor proven, that the Prime Minister knew the truth and lied, many reports question his claim that “I never received any written contradiction of that (children thrown overboard), nor did I receive any verbal contradiction of that” and, regarding his office, “No”.

This is what makes Mr Scrafton's evidence of his conversations with the Prime Minister on the night of 7 November 2001 so important. Mr Scrafton's account of what he told the Prime Minister provides us with some of the missing pieces of this jigsaw.

The CMI committee knew that Mr Scrafton had told the Prime Minister that the video of the incident was `at best inconclusive' as to whether any children had been thrown overboard. The new evidence that Mr Scrafton has revealed publicly suggests that he also gave the Prime Minister three other items of advice: firstly, that the photographs released in early October 2001 were definitely of the sinking of the refugee boat on 8 October and not of any children being thrown into the water the day before; secondly, that no-one in Defence that he dealt with still believed that children had been thrown overboard; and, thirdly, that an ONA report of 9 October 2001, which the Prime Minister believed confirmed the `children overboard' incident, may have been based solely on ministers' media statements and not intelligence. These points directly contradict the Prime Minister's media statements on this issue before the 2001 election and his statements to the parliament shortly thereafter.

The Prime Minister continues to deny that he discussed anything with Mr Scrafton other than the SIEV4 video. In support of this position, the government has made a concerted effort to discredit Mr Scrafton, and the government senators' report that I am tabling now continues along this vein. Through this inquiry, the committee has heard suggestions that Mr Scrafton is not to be believed simply because he has said he is not sure whether he had two or three conversations with the Prime Minister on 7 November 2001. The Prime Minister has suggested that Mr Scrafton cannot be believed because he did not give a full account of these conversations to an inquiry conducted by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2001.

The Prime Minister is asking us to believe his account over Mr Scrafton's. But as yet he has produced no reasonable explanation as to why it would have taken two phone calls for Mr Scrafton to tell him a video was inconclusive. In September this year, he told journalists that his second phone call to Mr Scrafton was to tell him to release the video. But none of his staff recollect this or mention it in their statements. And it begs the question why Tony O'Leary, who was with the Prime Minister on the Wednesday night, then called Mr Scrafton on the Thursday morning to tell him the Prime Minister wanted to release the video. If the Prime Minister's second phone call was to instruct Mr Scrafton to release the video, Mr O'Leary would have heard this and would have known his phone call to instruct Mr Scrafton to release the video was redundant.

Mr Scrafton's account of his conversations with the Prime Minister is supported by evidence from a former senior Defence official and two military officers. Jenny McKenry says Mr Scrafton told her on 8 November 2001 that he had told the Prime Minister there was no evidence to support the `children overboard' story. Major General Roger Powell and Commander Michael Noonan both recall Mr Scrafton telling them in December 2001 that he had told the Prime Minister children had not been thrown overboard. The Prime Minister has said these accounts are not evidence of what Mr Scrafton told the Prime Minister, only of what he told others of those conversations. But the Prime Minister has failed to explain why Mr Scrafton would have fabricated his version of these conversations for the purpose of telling a Defence colleague and an internal military investigation. Any reasonable person would think it much more likely that Mr Scrafton would be frank and honest with his colleagues in off-the-record conversations than that he would cook up a false story for inexplicable motives not knowing or having any foresight about how these events would subsequently pan out. The government senators' report tabled with this report also ignores this evidence—the corroboration from others.

Mr Scrafton's failure to tell the Bryant inquiry about the content of his phone conversations with the Prime Minister raises more questions about the nature of the Bryant inquiry than it does about Mr Scrafton's credibility. The inquiry's terms of reference, as interpreted by the public servants conducting it, constrained it from inquiring into the internal workings of ministerial offices. As the CMI report found, it was in ministerial offices that important verbal advice failed to be passed on or acted on. Mr Scrafton's evidence to this committee suggests that public servants giving evidence to the Bryant inquiry were afraid to tell the whole truth because saying anything embarrassing to this government would have professional consequences. The implications of this are disturbing—and we reflect upon this—not just for the Bryant report but for the ability of any internal inquiry investigating controversial issues to get to the truth of the matter.

One of the great furphies in this inquiry has been the suggestion that Mr Scrafton's uncertainty over the number of phone calls with the Prime Minister discredits his evidence entirely. Mr Scrafton was up front in telling this committee that he was not sure whether there were two or three conversations. This uncertainty is understandable. Half of the Prime Minister's staff who made statements about the matter could not recall how many conversations there were either. Under vigorous questioning, Mr Scrafton remained certain about the key elements he had communicated to the Prime Minister on the night of 7 November 2001.

At this point I should make a comment about the alleged phone records that some have suggested discredit Mr Scrafton's evidence. During this committee's public hearing, a government senator selectively quoted from documents alleged to be phone records from all the mobile phones in the Lodge that night. He refused to table these documents as evidence so the committee could examine them and refused to identify their source. He did not offer Mr Scrafton the chance to view the documents for himself. This selective use of unsourced, unverified material in an effort to discredit a witness before a Senate committee should be seen for what it is: a cheap stunt put on for the media that is unworthy of the attention it received. Nothing that has been heard about those records has cast doubt on the core points of Mr Scrafton's evidence.

The findings of this report are: the committee accepts the evidence of both Major General Powell and Commander Noonan that Mr Scrafton told them in December 2001 that he had advised the Prime Minister there was no substance to claims that children had been thrown overboard; the committee accepts Mr Scrafton's evidence that he felt constrained by various factors in his submissions to the Bryant inquiry; the committee notes Mr Scrafton's lack of certainty about the number and timing of his phone calls with the Prime Minister on 7 November 2001 but his certainty about the key points discussed during those conversations; the committee finds Mr Scrafton's claim that he told the Prime Minister on 7 November 2001 that there was no evidence to substantiate the `children overboard' story credible. The clear implication of his evidence is that the Prime Minister misled the Australian public in the lead-up to the 2001 federal election. Unfortunately, the government senators' report following the committee's report misrepresents this finding. The committee does not find Mr Scrafton overall to be credible; we simply find his claims supported by Powell, McKenry and Noonan to be credible.

As chair, I thank all those who supported the work of this committee, including those witnesses who gave their time to appear before it. In particular, I thank Mr Scrafton, who, as former committee chair Senator Ray has said, faced this day of questioning with grace and strength, knowing that by coming forward he would be subjected to vigorous scrutiny. I also thank the committee secretariat, Alistair Sands, Peta Leemen and Di Warhurst, for their work on this inquiry.