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Children In The Water-gate*; Why It Matters

February 15, 2002

The Australian, Friday February 15, 2002 The Prime Minister, John Howard, said in Parliament yesterday that the Opposition's pre-occupation with the issue of whether children were thrown overboard from a fishing boat carrying more than 200 asylum seekers on October 7 arose simply from its inability to accept that it lost the election.

The ALP says the issue is a question of the honesty of the government. Other critics question whether the government has lost its moral legitimacy.

So, does it matter, or is this just the wash-up of a bitter election campaign? Is it time, as we say these days, to "move on"?

Democratic Principles At Stake

One of the most important conventions governing the operation of our political system is that of the responsibility ministers have for the actions and operations of their departments.

It is expected, for example, that an incompetent minister will be sacked or moved by the Prime Minister. This has happened with the removal of Bronwyn Bishop as Minister for Aged Care in November 2001, following several years of controversy over her supervision of nursing homes. It occurred in Victoria in February 2002, when the Minister for Community Services, Christine Campbell, was demoted in the wake of her political difficulties with chroming by teenagers in government-funded welfare centres.

It is expected that ministers will take responsibility for serious sins of omission and commission in their departments. For example, in September 1997, Howard's Minister for Administrative Services, David Jull, was dismissed because of his actions concerning the supervision of travel expenses by the then Transport for Transport, John Sharp. Jull was not himself involved in rorting his travel expenses, but he was held accountable for his administrative behaviour. John Howard's Chief of Staff, Graeme Morris, also lost his job because of his failure to inform the Prime Minister of what he knew about Jull's actions.

As for this week's events, in essence, the Prime Minister is arguing that he was never told by his Minister for Defence, Peter Reith, or his Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, that there was no evidence that children were thrown overboard from a fishing boat on October 7, 2001. He claims that he was not told by officials in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Defence, or other agencies, that repeated public references to children having been thrown overboard were inaccurate.

There are a number of possibilities:

  • Howard is lying.
  • Reith lied to Howard.
  • Public servants lied to Howard and/or Reith and/or Ruddock.
  • Officials in Defence, PM&C, Immigration, DSD, and other agencies, failed to communicate information to the appropriate people in their departments, or to their ministers.
  • Public servants failed to pass on information to their ministers, or presented the information in such a way as to allow the ministers to continue to make public claims that were not true.
Whichever way the issues are examined, a number of things seem clear:
  • There are serious issues of ministerial responsibility at stake. Doubts exist as to whether public servants have behaved incompetently in passing advice and information to their ministers.

    Either the politicians have politicised the public service to such an extent that the bureaucrats are unwilling or unable to give frank and fearless advice, or the administration of the public service is so lax as to call into question the competence of departmental heads and/or their ministers. The Departmental Secretaries of Prime Minister and Cabinet (Max Moore-Wilton) and Defence (Allan Hawke) have questions to answer.

    Ultimately, in the Westminster system, the politicians are deemed responsible as the people's representatives.

  • Serious issues about the government's administration during the period of caretaker government are apparent. As Tony Phillips points out in The Age (Feb 15, 2002), "by continuing to (ab)use the levers of power for advantage while in caretaker mode, the government has established a precedent for governments in directly using the power of government to win elections.. Thus the Coalition has set a precedent that shifts the conduct of the election contest even further in the incumbent's favour."

  • The relationship between the military and the government has been called into question. It is a vital element of a democratic parliamentary democracy that the military is not politicised or used by the government of the day to advance its political interests in the name of the nation's security.

    In the aftermath of the use of military personnel to deal with asylum-seekers, and following the events of September 11, military, defence and security issues were at the forefront of the 2001 election campaign. The nation has a right to know whether the defence forces, particularly the Navy, and intelligence agencies, particularly the Defence Signals Directorate, have been used for political purposes.

  • There are now serious questions about the honesty and candour of the Prime Minister, the former Defence Minister, and the Minister for Immigration. The electorate's political trust in their government is now challenged, leading to doubts about the moral legitimacy of the government.

    Without doubt, supporters of the government will justify and rationalise their support in the name of border protection, or national security. Some may even say that all of this controversy is simply politics.

    Similarly, opponents of the government will feel vindicated that the use of asylum-seekers to create a climate of xenophobia has backfired. They will claim, as Simon Crean did in Parliament yesterday, that Howard's victory last year was a "dirty victory". Some within the ALP will also mourn the party's unwillingness to take a stand on these issues at the time.

    The loser, as always, will be the reputation and regard for politicians and the political process.

One of the most fascinating political aspects to be played out over the coming days is the future of the relationship between Peter Reith and John Howard. It was clear from Howard's responses to questions in Parliament yesterday that the blame was to be shifted to Reith, a convenient move given that Reith retired from Parliament at the election. Overnight, Reith has given a curt interview to The Australian denying that he told Howard there had been no change of advice from Defence Department officials.

Reith was the man who ran against John Hewson in 1990 in order to establish his leadership credentials. He allowed himself to be consigned to the "sin-bin" after the defeat of the coalition and the Fightback! program in the 1993 elections. He was made Defence Minister in 2001, following the scandal of the Telecard affair which left him $50,000 out of pocket. Never to be forgiven by his opponents for his orchestration of the waterfront dispute in 1998, it looks as though he has decided not to carry the can on this occasion.


* phrase used by Tony Jones, Lateline, February 14, 2002.

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