Patrick Weller: Truth lies in murky waters

WHAT did leaders know and when were they told? These questions lie at the heart of many investigations into government. Hearings on the Watergate, Iran-contra and Whitewater scandals during the past three decades sought to implicate American presidents; only the first found the smoking gun that forced a president from power. The question is important because it asks if our leaders tell us the truth.

Last week 43 senior officials bemoaned the decline of truth in government. Now one of the key players in the children overboard affair, former senior public servant and ministerial adviser Mike Scrafton, has added to the furore. He declared in a letter to The Australian that he did tell Prime Minister John Howard that the photos released as evidence of children overboard were really taken when the boat was sinking and that no one in defence believed that children were actually thrown overboard. He also says he raised doubts about an Office of National Assessments report, suggesting it was based on ministerial statements, not defence intelligence.

The Prime Minister denies he talked about anything except a video that, according to the minister, the retiring Peter Reith, provided evidence of refugees throwing their children overboard. He said in February 2002 that if he had received "contrary advice [that the initial story was wrong], I would have made that contrary advice public".

Four days before the 2001 election, on November 7, The Australian raised doubts about the truth of the whole affair, based on evidence from HMAS Adelaide. In response to the story, the acting chief of defence, Angus Houston, told his minister there was no evidence to support the story.

The minister instructed Scrafton to view the video and told him the Prime Minister would ring. There were then two or three calls. What do we know of these phone calls? It is on the record Scrafton told the Prime Minister that the video was inconclusive. The next day the video was released.

The question is: What else, if anything, was discussed? In evidence to one of the inquiries, Scrafton said he had "been involved in or was aware of a number of discussions between Mr Reith's office and the Prime Minister's office and the Prime Minister, which he could not discuss". He was prepared to reveal the section about the video to the inquiry; in February 2002, the Prime Minister had confirmed those details in parliament. Yet the Prime Minister's office was still worried about these calls two months later.

When Jennifer Bryant, the author of the inquiry established by the Prime Minister, appeared before the Senate inquiry, she revealed she had been contacted by the Prime Minister's office. The office wanted to confirm that Scrafton would not talk about those conversations and suggested he be contacted again to confirm it. Bryant thought it would be imprudent. Clearly there was some concern about the content of the calls, over and above what had already been released about the video. Perhaps we now know why. Furthermore, the government strategy seems to have changed after the calls. The story of children overboard had disappeared as a live story a week after the event; its resuscitation threatened the Government's credibility.

At the Press Club on the day after the calls, the Prime Minister relied heavily on the ONA report to defend his Government's position. In effect, Howard quoted the ONA, which quoted his ministers as support for a story for which there was by then no other evidence. Not until after the election did the ONA confirm in writing Scrafton's concern that the report was indeed only quoting ministers.

Howard further argued he and his ministers had been advised by the navy that these incidents had happened and that they were justified in relying on that advice. He did not claim that the story was true, just that he had been told the story by the navy and used it in good faith.

By election day, indeed, the Prime Minister was arguing he still believed the story because defence had told ministers it was true and had not provided contrary advice. No one was actively promoting the idea that refugees had thrown children overboard. But that was not the impression most people might have had. The image created in those first few days of the campaign was indelibly imprinted on the election campaign.

Thereafter the devil was in the detail of the statements; the Government was justified in its stance as it had never been given formal written advice that the events had not occurred.

Why should it accept verbal advice that no one believed the incident had happened when it was waiting for formal written confirmation that never came? Besides, no one in the minister's office trusted defence to get the details right. It was convenient to fudge, to leave a false impression.

What was being said -- we were advised it had happened; we had a right to believe that advice; no one has given us formal advice to the contrary -- was the truth but not the whole truth. The story had shifted. That is being economical with the truth in the real sense of the term: to be selective in order to provide a picture that misleads.

What the public knows depends all too often on what part of the truth our governments choose to tell.

As William Blake wrote:

A truth that's told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent.

Patrick Weller, a professor of politics at Griffith University in Brisbane, is author of Don't Tell the Prime Minister (Scribe, 2002).

[from The Australian, 17-Aug-2004]

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