Reith is absent from the airwaves today. The photo fraud, Peter, feel like explaining? After all, you released those pictures in response to doubts being expressed over the truth of the claim (see Reith transcript of interview with Virginia Trioli in Credibility overboard). It doesn’t matter any more. Another incendiary pre-election gambit – boat people deliberately set fire to a boat just to show us they’re sub-human. Reith’s office says no to releasing the video. Do you believe it? It doesn’t matter any more.
For posterity, some more transcripts. First Howard, then, to end, a lucid voice from an Australian elder, John Menadue, now a voice in the wilderness in a land where facts count for nothing and myth is reality. Australia will regret condemning as `elite’ the voices of scholarship, experience, and the wisdom born of deep thought about our nation’s interests. The new elite values none of these qualities. The voices of reason, young and old, across the political spectrum, have done their best. They lost with honour.
I didn’t catch it, but I’ve heard Tony Jones’ interview with Howard on Lateline last night was a ripper. That transcript, and Howard’s interviews today, are also published. It’s interesting that while this morning’s transcripts are on the Liberal Party’s website, the Lateline transcript hasn’t made it. The Sunrise interview is incredible – after last night admitting that the children were not thrown overboard, he’s now saying they WERE, despite the clear denials of that by Shackleton and more sailors quoted in The Australian today. Howard is now saying the NAVY gave him that advice, whereas last night he blamed the navy for failing to correct the public record. “That advice that the children were thrown overboard) was left uncorrected for a whole month,” he said on last night’s SBS Insight program. “It would have been a good idea if we’d been told this some weeks ago.”
Those remarks were made before Shackleton’s second statement, very carefully written, where he did not contradict his assertion that no children had been thrown overboard, or that navy had never given advice that they had. Instead, he said: “I confirm the Minister was advised that Defence believed children had been thrown overboard.” As you know from last night’s entry, his spokesman – when asked to clarify the apparent inconsistency, said “the defence department”, not the navy, had given the government the advice. He refused to say who in the department had done so except that it was “a defence adviser”, or on what basis. He refused to say what, if anything, the navy did to correct the record when Reith released photos he alleged were taken after the children were thrown overboard. He confirmed that the only time any children were in the water was “the next day, when the boat was sinking”.
Later that night on Insight, Howard claimed that it was hairsplitting to distinguish the navy and defence. “I think, with respect, the navy is part of defence,” he said. By today, however, the defence advice came from the navy, according to Howard. Again, he has politicised the navy and effectively questioned the word of its chief and its staff in the action. Even Ruddock was prepared to concede on radio this morning that the children had not been thrown overboard. It doesn’t matter any more.
Laurie Oakes in the Bulletin this week wrote a lead which chilled me to the bone. “I was speaking to a senior Liberal politician the other day, about why – according to most opinion polls – the Coalition looked to be heading for victory in the election. He was in no doubt about the reason. “There’s a lot of racism out there,” he said candidly. This was a man who has spent the previous four weeks doorknocking in the Liberal cause. He was happy to have the votes. But he added: “There’ll need to be a healing process when this is all over.”
That won’t be possible. If either party backtracks, the depth of that betrayal of the Australian people would spawn forces far darker and more dangerous than Hansonism. When you campaign on fundamental fears, it’s not just another broken promise. That’s the downside of the choices made by both sides at this election.
LATELINE, November 8
TONY JONES: Our interview with Mr Howard is now in two parts, the first of which ranges over the issue that has dominated this campaign – the effort to stem the flow of asylum seekers. Following that interview, and after Vice-Admiral Shackleton, the Chief of the Navy, put out a statement attempting to clarify his earlier comments, Mr Howard requested a second interview with Lateline on the issue.
JONES: Mr Howard, whoever wins this election, will there be a need for healing on the question of race?
HOWARD: No. That question is based on the inference that what we are doing on asylum seekers is racially based. I want to reject that. It’s not racially based.
The reason that we are adopting our policy on asylum seekers is that people seek to come here illegally. We’re not saying that we’ll allow some people to come of a particular race and we’ll reject others. If that were the case, then you would be perfectly entitled to allege or infer that it’s based on race.
It wouldn’t matter what country the people were coming from, we would still adopt the same attitude, if they were coming from England, or from Japan, or from the United States. People who seek to come here illegally would all be treated the same way. It is not based on race. And I reject completely the inference that the whole policy is racially based.
I think that’s insulting to the Government and it’s also insulting to many Australians who support the Government’s policy.
JONES:Alright. In spite of your intentions, most people know when there’s been a big shift in the racial climate in Australia and that appears to be one of the main reasons so many prominent people have come forward to speak out against your policy in recent days.
HOWARD: Well, I don’t accept that either. I don’t believe that there has been a shift in the racial climate. I really don’t. I think that is just, with great respect to people who are articulating that view, I think that is provocative in itself.
JONES: Alright, but listening to what they’re saying about you. “The policy is wrong.
It’s inhumane.” Malcolm Fraser. “He has manipulated prejudice to his personal political advantage.” John Hewson. “We need a new approach.” Julie Bishop. “Appealing to the worst in our natures.” Fred Chaney. “Howard is a throwback.” Ian McPhee.
Now, these are all people from your own party. Why are they so terribly worried about what’s happening?
HOWARD: Can I just say one thing about – what you have done is to unfairly quote Julie Bishop. The new approach that she was referring to was in the context of some observations – and I’ve seen the whole text of it – in some observations about an agreement with Indonesia which, of course, we all support, if it can be achieved. I think you’re being very unfair to her.
JONES: Well we could – “It is vital that there’s an agreement with Indonesia.”
HOWARD: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. Well, I’m, I’m, I’m in favour of an agreement with Indonesia but, in the end, in the end, Tony, whenever you have a difficult issue, you’re going to have critics. And I have taken and the Government has taken a stand on this, because we believe it to be in our national interest that we send a signal that we are no longer a country of easy destination. For too long, the view was taken that we were.
We are in favour of taking refugees. We continue to take more, on a per capita basis, than any country except Canada. And we’ll continue to have that policy.
But we are not going to have people present themselves in a way that is illegal and to present themselves in a way that disrupts the normal operation of our refugee policy.
JONES: Alright, now you have made the point that you would have the same attitude if these were people from Britain or the United States or Japan, I think you just said. Why then haven’t you moved with equal force to track down the 54,000 people who have overstayed their visas and are now in this country illegally, according to your own immigration website, most of whom come from Britain and the United States?
HOWARD: Well, we continue, we continue to do all sorts of things in relation to illegal immigrants but, obviously, there are illegal immigrants from a lot of countries and not just – you say the majority from Britain and the United States – I don’t know whether that’s true or false.
JONES: Well, that’s what the Department of Immigration website says.
HOWARD: Well, I would like to get my own direct advice on that. But you’re dealing there with a situation where people have actually arrived in the country and, obviously, once people are in the country, it’s harder to find them. And that really is, is, in a sense, an argument in favour of what we’re doing.
I mean, once people have arrived in a country, there are all sorts of argument as to why it is difficult to ask them to go and it is far better, in our view, to send a signal that illegal immigration is not something that we’re going to accept.
JONES: Now, Mr Howard, I was going to ask you if you admonished Peter Reith for having suggested that there may have been a link between the asylum seekers and terrorism during these days. But then it appears that you made the same link yourself.
HOWARD: Well, I certainly haven’t admonished Peter Reith because all he did was to make the wholly reasonable point that, unless you have a careful screening process, you can’t guarantee that people who come here illegally may not have terrorist links. I wasn’t alleging that any of the boat people were terrorists. And what I have said is exactly the same thing that Tony Blair said when he addressed the British Labour Party conference in October. It’s exactly the same thing as the Deputy Secretary of State, Jim Kelly, said in Indonesia.
I find it a whole unexceptionable statement. I’m not saying there are terrorists on the boats. I’m simply saying you can’t guarantee there aren’t people who have such links, unless you have a very effective and a very strong screening process. I think that is a personal reasonable, logical statement to make. (MARGO: And we do, for the boat people. The Pacific solution is about doing the same checks overseas, not here. No checks for the overstayers. And how did the S11 terrorists get into the states? Legally. So what’s the link again, John? )
JONES: But, in the present climate, with our own troops committed to a war against terrorists, what could arouse people’s fears of asylum seekers more than the suggestion that they may be terrorists?
HOWARD: Well, Tony, therefore, what I’ve said, what Jim Kelly has said and what Tony Blair has said is – I mean, Tony Blair’s troops are involved as well. Are you saying that he’s arousing fears in Britain? I mean, look, I’ve got responsibility to ensure, as best I can, that this country is protected. And I think the people who are talking about the inflaming of passions are my critics. I don’t find, as I go around Australia, that people are inflamed.
I think people are angry about what happened in the United States, they are keen that we be part of that coalition, they believe we are living in more difficult, more sombre times and circumstances and they want this country to protect – this Government to protect – the country’s borders.
I don’t find people behaving in an irrational, racist fashion and, quite frankly, on their behalf, I resent the suggestion being made that anybody who supports the Government’s policy is in some way supportive of racism. I think that’s a wholly unreasonable remark to make about many people in the country who agree with what the Government is doing.
JONES: Is this another case of John Howard versus the elites?
HOWARD: They’re your words. I’m not putting it that way.
JONES: It’s a question.
HOWARD: The answer is no. This is John Howard in favour of protecting Australia’s borders.
JONES: Now, you mentioned Tony Blair and he also said soon after the quote that you quoted during the press conference there, he also said, “The world must show as much its capacity for compassion as for force.” Now, bearing in mind that many of these asylum seekers are fleeing from the very terrorist-backed regime in Afghanistan that we are fighting, do you feel compassion for them?
HOWARD: Look, I feel, I feel compassion for a lot of people. I felt compassion for that man who lost his three little girls. Of course I do. I’m touched by all human tragedy.
What we have done in relation to the burgeoning refugee problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to provide a lot of additional money, about $23 million, or the bulk of that $23 million, to UN agencies. We are prepared into the future to join other international efforts.
Of course, I feel a compassion. I’ve got to balance that with a long-term concern for the protection of our borders and the longer-term interests of the Australian community.
I mean, of course I feel compassion.
JONES: Now, you mentioned that man who lost his three little girls. In fact, there were two men, both designated as refugees, both of whom lost three little girls. One of them is being refused permission to go and visit his wife who is now grieving in Indonesia, as you well know.
Why did you, if you felt this compassion for him, if you were so touched by his story, why did you not let him go back to his wife with the possibility of then coming back to Australia?
HOWARD: Well, it raises the whole question of – I mean, there’s, there would be no difficulty if he was going to Indonesia. It was a question of his coming back.
JONES: That is the problem, isn’t it?
HOWARD: Yeah, but, I mean, if the policy – yeah but, if the policy is altered in one case, questions are going to be raised as to why it should not be altered in other cases. And, when you’re administering a policy, you have to have flexibility but you also have regard to the precedents it establishes for the future.
JONES: You do have to have flexibility, it was within your power, these were exceptional circumstances, you could hardly imagine circumstances more extreme. You’re a father yourself. Do you not think that Australian voters would have forgiven you for allowing that man to go back to his wife and then come back to Australia?
HOWARD: Well, Tony, it’s you who are choosing to put it in crude political terms like that, not me.
JONES: Well, I mean, were you advised? Let’s talk about the politics of it. Were you advised that the images of him going back to Indonesia would have somehow mitigated against the tenor of your campaign?
HOWARD: Certainly not, Tony, that’s close to being an offensive question.
HOWARD: Because it is. I never take advice on the political impact of something like that.
JONES: It’s not too late before the election to change your mind on this issue. Is there a chance now of you saying to him, “You can go back to your wife.”
HOWARD: Tony, the decision is in the hands of the Immigration Minister. Under law, it’s not in my hands. I just want to, for the record, reject your suggestion that I would seek day-to-day political advice as to the political impact of a decision like that. I do find that question being close to offensive.
JONES: Now, Peter Reith said today that he still has not seen the infamous and apparently inconclusive video which he claimed showed children being thrown into the sea. Should he have made it his duty as Defence Minister and subsequently as the person who was holding that position in keeping before the election. Should he have made it his duty to see that video.
HOWARD: Well Peter Reith said he’d been advised that the video showed that. At all times, Peter Reith and I have acted on advice in relation to this. Now, I don’t think he necessarily should have because the central issue here is the policy, the question of whether children were thrown into the water – unpleasant, emotional though that may be – it’s not directly relevant to the policy. It is, it is an issue but it’s not directly relevant to the policy. I don’t think Peter’s been at fault here. He merely acted on advice.
I actually had written advice from ONA which I read out at the press club and I’m quite happy to make that available to Mr Beazley. Now, we act on advice and, if the advice we get is one direction, we repeat it, if it’s another direction, well, we repeat that as well. I mean, I wasn’t up there with HMAS Adelaide. I wasn’t a direct participant in any of the events and I can only repeat the advice that I have received.
JONES: Well, the chief of the navy, Vice-Admiral David Shackleton says the navy did not advise the Government that a group of asylum seekers threw their children overboard.
HOWARD: Well, I’ve seen a wire report of what he said.
JONES: So have I. I’ve got it here.
HOWARD: Yeah, but he did go on to say that a child believed to be aged 5 or 6 was held at a railing and threatened to be hurled overboard. If that’s correct, that’s pretty reprehensible as well.
The advice we – advice we had and this is the first I’ve heard anything to the contrary from Admiral Shackleton and its five, six weeks since the original advice, the advice was what Mr Reith and Mr Ruddock retailed into the public –
JONES: Not according to Vice-Admiral David Shackleton. The advice was not that children had been thrown into the sea, not at all.
HOWARD: Well, Tony, all I can say is that I had written advice from ONA to that effect. I mean, if Admiral Shackleton is now saying that that written advice is wrong, then I will talk to him about that and find out the sequence of events but I’ve got to make the point that Mr Reith and Mr Ruddock and I have been saying these things in public now for some weeks and, if in fact what we were saying in wrong, in fact, then it would have been helpful if we had been told.
JONES: You’d regret it, having made the statements you’d made then, if it were wrong?
HOWARD: No, no, no. I don’t regret repeating what I’ve been told and, if I have a written report in front of me that says in plain English, it says that people wearing life jackets jumped into the sea and children were thrown into the water and this was similar to a practice that had been followed in other parts of the world, why would I regret repeating some advice I had been formally given?
JONES: Prime Minister, only if it proved to be wrong subsequently and the suggestion that asylum seekers had actually done this, had been out during an election campaign in this overheated atmosphere of an election campaign.
HOWARD: Tony I have reason to regret remarks I make which are hurtful or wilfully wrong or wilfully false. I haven’t done anything like that on this occasion. I’ve been given advice and in good faith. I’ve spoken on the basis of that advice.
JONES: Now, I don’t have — but you might regret the implication or the sense that it would give the Australian people about what these people were doing out there on these boats.
HOWARD: Tony, are you therefore saying that it’s fairly in order to hold a 5 or 6-year-old child up at a railing and threaten to throw it overboard? You surely don’t think that’s a nice thing to do.
JONES: Certainly not Mr Howard. I’m just asking questions.
HOWARD: I’m answering by posing a rhetorical question to you. You’re asking me about regrets. What? Regret for having made a statement based on advice I are had received.
JONES: Following that interview, and after Vice-Admiral Shackleton, the Chief of the Navy, put out a statement attempting to clarify his earlier comments, Mr Howard requested a second interview with Lateline on the issue. Here’s that second interview.
JONES: Who was it that convinced Admiral Shackleton to make this new statement?
HOWARD: I think that’s a bit offensive for him. I certainly didn’t speak to him and I didn’t ask the Defence Minister to speak to him and I’m not aware that anybody has spoken to him. I think that’s a pretty offensive question.
Because the statement makes it very clear that we did receive advice that defence believed children had been thrown in the water and I think it’s a bit offensive to a senior serving officer of the ADF to make that kind of remark. I certainly didn’t speak to him. To my knowledge, Mr Reith hasn’t spoken to him. I certainly didn’t ask that any pressure be put on him.
JONES: No-one from your office has spoken to him, obviously, in that case.
HOWARD: I’m not aware that anybody in my office has spoken to him. But I just want to make it clear I have not put any pressure on him and I did not ask anybody to put any pressure on him.
JONES: All right. Now, as you say, the statement confirms and it says, “The minister was advised that defence believed “children had been thrown overboard.” He’s not saying, though, and he didn’t say at any time in his press conference, in fact he pointedly did not say it, that any children were thrown overboard.
HOWARD: Well, Tony, I think, with great respect, you are splitting hairs in that we have said all along –
JONES: Splitting hairs as to whether children –
HOWARD: No, will you please, will you please not interrupt? I have said all along that the statements we have been made have been based on advice and I had ONA advice – let me remind you again from my earlier interview – which stated categorically that children were thrown in the water.
Now, I don’t, I don’t – I mean, there’s, we are spending a lot of time on this but of course the media is absolutely obsessed with this issue.
And, can I just say to you again, at all stages, the comments I made were based on advice and a belief that that advice was correct. I have no reason to believe other than that Mr Reith was given advice to that effect and the Admiral has confirmed it tonight.
JONES: But Mr Howard, it was your Government, it was you and your ministers, who said categorically that these children had been thrown in the water and now it appears there still is doubt as to whether that happened.
HOWARD: Well, Tony, I was given unconditional advice to that effect.
JONES: What’s your advice now from the Vice-Admiral? Is he telling you that children were thrown in the water? Because he wasn’t saying that at his press conference.
HOWARD: Tony, I haven’t spoken to the Vice-Admiral and I don’t intend to speak to the Vice-Admiral. It will only then be misconstrued, as your opening question indicated.
JONES: That was a question trying to elicit a point, Mr Howard.
HOWARD: No. You were inferring that somebody heavied the Admiral, yes you were. Your question had no other connotation but, anyway, let’s move on.
JONES: Mr Howard, it now seems pretty clear that those still pictures of the children in the sea in life jackets were taken after the boat had sunk, which was considerably later than the allegations that they were thrown into the water. Now those pictures were represented to the Australian public as pictures of children who’d been thrown overboard by asylum seekers. Was that the case?
HOWARD: Well, Tony, I will suggest that you speak to Mr Reith about that, because those pictures were issued by his office. I’m not suggesting, in pointing you in Mr Reith’s direction, that he’s misrepresented the situation, but it’s better that he deal with that because he knows all about the pictures and he issued them. And Mr Reith has been in the air flying back from Perth over the last few hours so it’s not been possible for me to speak to him.
JONES: Would you agree with this – if those pictures were taken after the boat was sunk and then represented to the public as pictures of children who’d been thrown overboard by asylum seekers, would that be a scandal?
HOWARD: Oh, look, I’m not going to answer your hypothetical questions.
JONES: But we still don’t know the answer, do we?
HOWARD: What? To a hypothetical question?
JONES: No, we don’t know the answer as to when those pictures were taken.
HOWARD: Well, Tony –
JONES: We don’t know if any children were, in fact, thrown overboard.
HOWARD: Tony, we do know this – that I was given unconditional advice that children had been thrown overboard. We do know this – that the Vice-Admiral confirmed that advice came from defence, of that belief. We do know this – that if you want some further information on those pictures, you should speak to the minister’s office. I have not been able to speak to him because he’s been in the air and I don’t intend to sort of guess a response on something like this. (MARGO: Despite repeated attempts by the Herald, Reith has been unavailable for comment so far today.)
JONES: Mr Howard, do you undertake to give us – or the Australian public, I suppose – a clear answer as to when those pictures were taken and as to whether or not any children were in fact thrown overboard by asylum seekers?
HOWARD: Well, Tony, I can only rely on advice, ’cause I wasn’t there and I repeat the advice I received from ONA was unconditional. There’s nothing I can add to that. I can’t make it any more firm than that and you’ve heard from the Vice-Admiral and, as far as the pictures are concerned, I suggest you speak to Mr Reith about it but, really, to ask me to go any further than that is ridiculous. I can’t because I wasn’t there and at all stages I have acted on advice.
JONES: There were plenty of naval personnel who were there and presumably they could provide those answers.
HOWARD: Well, Tony, I am not a serving officer in the navy and the question of answers to that is really a matter for the navy, the Vice-Admiral has said that Defence conveyed a belief to the minister that children had been thrown overboard. Now I would think that’s pretty categorical.
JONES: It’s not categorically if he was saying defence. If he’d said the navy, that might be different.
HOWARD: Oh, so what, the navy is not part of defence?
JONES: Well, it’s not clear in his statement what he’s referring to –
HOWARD: Oh, really, really, really, this is becoming ridiculous.
HOWARD INTERVIEW WITH GLENN MILNE, SUNRISE, Network 7, November 9
MILNE: Turning straight to the boat people Prime Minister. Isn’t it a fact that these claims about children being thrown overboard were a beat up from the start?
HOWARD: No they weren’t, if you are told and in my case in writing by the Office of National Assessment that children were thrown overboard and adults in lifejackets went overboard I don’t believe that’s a beat up.
MILNE: Shouldn’t Defence Minister Peter Reith have looked at this video? You’ve been running the entire campaign on this issue and he still hasn’t seen it, he says. That’s not believable is it?
HOWARD: Glenn we haven’t been running the entire campaign on a video. We have been placing a great emphasis in the campaign on the need for strong border protection laws and this issue doesn’t in any way diminish the strength of that policy or the emphasis that we have been placing on it.
MILNE: But what about the question of whether Peter Reith as the responsible Minister he should have looked at that video shouldn’t he?
HOWARD: Well Glenn you can argue that but what he said from the beginning was that he had been informed that the video showed certain things and yesterday despite everything that was said in the intro the head of the Navy, under no pressure from me, under no pressure from Mr Reith, had made the statement confirming that defence had told the minister that it was believed children had been thrown overboard. It was that statement, not the video, which was the original source of the allegations regarding the children being raised. At no stage did anybody say that the source of the story that children had been thrown overboard was the video.
MILNE: Well whose fault is this Prime Minister and what are you going to do about it?
HOWARD: Glenn the issue has not been, the issue that children were thrown over seas and that was part of advice from defence to us, that has not been in any changed by what occurred yesterday.
MILNE: Yes but somebody gave you that advice Prime Minister, who was it and what are you going to do about?
HOWARD: That advice was given to us by the Navy and that has been confirmed, it has been confirmed by the head of the Navy last night. (MARGO: That is untrue. The navy did not give that advice. The navy said it never happened. See Webdiary Circling the wagons.) You say what am I going to do about it, well it’s been confirmed. It’s been confirmed Glenn, there’s really nothing more to be done about it.
MILNE: But it was incorrect advice was it not?
HOWARD: No it was not incorrect advice, what is your basis of saying it was it incorrect advice?
MILNE: Well the video shows no children being thrown overboard?
HOWARD: But Glenn that assumes that the video covers every aspect of the operation.
MILNE: But do you now accept that no children were thrown overboard.
HOWARD: No I don’t accept that, I repeat what I’ve said earlier and that is that from that beginning we were given defence advice that children had been thrown overboard, that was confirmed in writing by the Office of National Assessment and last night the head of the Navy said in writing that the Minister was informed of the defence department, of Navy’s belief that children had been thrown overboard. Now in those circumstances you’re saying to me there’s now no evidence that children were thrown overboard.
MILNE: In the Australian this morning a petty officer is quoted from the Adelaide saying that the shots we can see apparently of a child being held up on a rail was not somebody preparing to throw over a child but was in fact a refugee trying to demonstrate to the Navy that there were children on board. What do you make of that, do you have any information on that?
HOWARD: I don’t have any information on that because I haven’t spoken to the petty officer.
MILNE: So the Government’s position remains that children were thrown overboard and you don’t retract your remarks that those sort of people should not be allowed into Australia?
HOWARD: Glenn the Government’s position remains that we were advised by defence that children were thrown overboard, we made those allegations on the basis of that advice and until I get defence advice to the contrary I will maintain that position. But in the end on something like this I can only advise, I can only repeat the advice that I have received. Obviously I’ll be talking further to defence about this issue but the fact remains that as of now the head of the Navy says that defence did advise the minister that it believed children had been thrown overboard.
MILNE: Kim Beazley’s accused you of lying and says it’s a question of your integrity. If you are re-elected on Saturday will you hold a public inquiry into this entire episode?
HOWARD: Well Glenn I’m not going to commitment myself to a public inquiry into anything on the run. I will be talking to the Navy and getting more information about this. I will certainly be doing that. I reject completely any allegation of lying by Mr Beazley, he would say that wouldn’t he the day before an election?
MILNE: Do you think that public attitudes to border protection would have been different Prime Minister if these people had been white Zimbabwian farmers speaking English with blonde children?
HOWARD: No I don’t think it would have been and I think that’s a pretty offensive remark because it infers, and you know it infers, that this policy is racial based. I’ll finish my answer because that is plainly a question implying that our policy is racial based’
MILNE: No Prime Minister it’s a question of community attitudes.
HOWARD: No, no, no, well it implies that the community is racial biased and I don’t believe the Australian community is and I think one of the great mistakes that my critics and the government’s critics on this issue are making is to allege that in some way it’s all based on race. It wouldn’t make any difference at all whether they were white or Japanese, or North America or whatever, it is a question of protecting our borders. And the debate over the last 24 hours about the incident that took place on this particular vessel really doesn’t relate in any way to the policy. The policy remains unaltered, the policy is that we are not going to allow illegal immigrants to come to this country. We will take refugees but everybody’s got to take their turn, everybody’s got to be processed in accordance with the principles laid down by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and I don’t care where they come from, that is the policy we are going to adopt.
HOWARD INTERVIEW WITH STEVE LIEBMANN, TODAY SHOW, Network 9, this morning
LIEBMANN: Can I begin by asking you whether you think it’s possible that this issue, the border security and illegal boat arrival issue, the one that looked like winning the election for you, in light of the overnight controversy, could now lose it for you?
HOWARD: No, I don’t think people’s attitudes on the issue is going to change because of the debate over whether children went overboard or not because what people are strongly, hold strong views about is the maintenance of strong protection of our borders. The other issue is important and emotional and I understand the interest but it really is not at the core of the debate. The core of the debate is whether the Government agrees, whether the public agrees with the line the Government has taken about deterring illegal immigration. That’s what people are interested in. And if people agree with us on that issue, well, they’ll support us. If they don’t agree with us I guess they won’t support us because they would imagine that Mr Beazley doesn’t feel as strongly about the issue as I do.
LIEBMANN: But who got it wrong, you, Ruddock, Reith, the ONA or the Vice Admiral, before he clarified his position?
HOWARD: Well, in the end the Vice Admiral did say that Defence had told the Minister that they believed children had been thrown overboard and at all times I acted on that advice. I mean, I can’t do anything other in a situation like this. These incidents happen up around Ashmore Reef and Christmas Island. I’m not there. And I was told that defence people on the spot had indicated that children were being thrown overboard.
LIEBMANN: Did Peter Reith mislead the public and you, should he have been a little more careful and a little less loose with his language?
HOWARD: I don’t believe so. I mean, if you are told that something has happened you are entitled to repeat it and when somebody doesn’t come along and say, hey Minister, we’ve got to tell you that the advice we previously gave you may not have been correct’.
LIEBMANN: I think, I think, correct me if I’m wrong, that somebody did say to Peter Reith, after the first report, it’s wrong, correct it or it should be corrected.
HOWARD: No, that’s news to me. In relation to children going overboard?
HOWARD: No, that’s news to me. I’ll ask Peter that when I get off the programme. I mean, I would like to know and I intend to get in writing a sequence of all of the events and who told who what because I am, whatever, irrespective of the election, I’m very keen to do that and probably that will take a day or two to compile. But, look, can I just repeat again, my original statement was based on what I was told by Mr Ruddock and was told by Mr Reith. They, in turn, got the information originally from defence sources. I received an ONA report on the Tuesday, which I read out – the relevant bit I read out at the National Press Club – and that was unambiguous. I mean – and when you get a document like that I am entitled, as Prime Minister, to rely on that until it is countermanded. Now, I say again, I was told in unconditional terms by ONA that this had occurred. So, if you’re told that, heaven’s above.
LATELINE, November 7
John Menadue has been described as one of Australia’s great insiders, working for Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Rupert Murdoch. Whitlam chose him to head his department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. For Fraser he ran immigration and ethnic affairs. He was our ambassador in Tokyo, chief of Qantas and a director of Telstra. In a speech recently to launch Mr Menadue’s autobiography, Gough Whitlam described him as “a sacred and secular treasure”, which will no doubt reinforce, in the minds of many, his reputation as a Labor man. But, today, while savagely criticising the Prime Minister for his treatment of boat people, Mr Menadue also says Kim Beazley has “knuckled under” and shown “cowardice” rather than leadership.
TONY JONES: Harsh words and I think you’ll be cursed for them by the Labor Party. Why choose to speak out now, just a few days before an election?
JOHN MENADUE: Refugees and immigration is a matter which has concerned me for a long time. In our family, we took a Cambodian refugee as a foster daughter. Refugees have made an enormous contribution to this country.
I think, historically, Australia should be proud of its record on taking refugees – the Menzies government from Eastern Europe and northern Europe, the Fraser government from Indo-China and, later, the Labor governments of Keating and of Hawke.
It’s a proud record but I’m afraid, in recent days, the performance of the government and the ‘me-tooism’ of the Labor Party leaves me bitterly disappointed that our proud record is being besmirched by the political opportunism on refugees.
JONES: Now, you have used the word `cowardice’ in your document that you put out today.
MENADUE: It was.
JONES: Are you referring to both leaders of both parties?
MENADUE: I wasn’t referring to anyone in particular.
But it is claimed that the Government is showing strong leadership on refugees.
Frankly, it’s pretty easy to attack people who are defenceless, vulnerable, like refugees and that’s what’s been happening and I think that is cowardly behaviour by anyone who attacks defenceless people.
JONES: Now, as I said at the beginning of the program, there’s a long stream of people, many of them venerable people from all sorts of occupations, coming out and saying similar things. Only a few days ago, the playwright David Williamson, a lifelong Labor supporter, said he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Kim Beazley this time around, precisely because of Labor’s acquiescence. Do you feel the same way?
MENADUE: I feel very disappointed. How I’ll vote will be a matter for me to decide on the day. I am disappointed.
I’m extremely disappointed that the parties have lost touch with their constituencies.
The major parties are run by insiders for the sake of insiders, and they listen to focus groups in marginal electorates.
They do not listen to their own constituencies.
And, if they were listening, I believe we wouldn’t have had this appalling scaremongering that we’re getting on refugees and asylum seekers at the present time.
JONES: Of course, Prime Minister Howard would probably argue to that that, very precisely, he is in touch with his constituency.
MENADUE: I think he’s in touch with the worst that’s in each of us. I think we all are inclined to be selfish, we’re inclined to be frightened of outsiders and people that are different.
What we believe – I believe we need in Australia is what Abraham Lincoln described as “someone who can touch the better angels of our nature”.
And we all have better angels and Australia in refugee policies in the past has responded very generously and I believe that Australians would respond again with leadership.
And it’s a tough issue, I accept that it’s a tough issue but, unfortunately, we seem to be – have a leadership in Australia that appeals to our worst instincts of being frightened of foreigners and looking after our interests and punishing and demeaning and admonishing extremely vulnerable people.
JONES: Just to confirm, you’re talking about the leadership on both sides of politics.
MENADUE: I am, I am, yes, yes.
JONES: We’ve seen deep disaffection among some very senior Liberals – John Hewson, Fred Chaney, your old boss Malcolm Fraser – none of them, though, much liked John Howard in the first place. That’s what a lot of Liberals are saying right now – that this is a chance for them to come out and criticise someone they never liked.
MENADUE: I’m certainly hearing it, not from public figures that you’ve mentioned, but from private people I know on both sides of politics, who are extremely disturbed by the scaremongers and the frightening of the Australian community that we’ve seen over the last few weeks.
All I can hope is that, by raising these issues – and I don’t think we will resolve them before the election, unfortunately – is that after the election, wiser counsels will prevail in both the parties, and we’ll get back to a sensible humanitarian and decent policy on asylum seekers.
JONES: All right. Now, as I said at the beginning, you actually have run the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, as it was called then, are we actually, in your opinion, facing a crisis from the boat people who are coming here?
MENADUE: No. It is a grossly exaggerated problem. We had similar problems with Indo-China boat people coming into Darwin and the north-western parts of Australia. It was a problem. It was dealt with sensibly and carefully with cool heads. We didn’t set about to victimise and punish defenceless people. And we had, I believe, under Malcolm Fraser, a very successful refugee program of well over 100,000 people. We responded to the best instincts of Australians and, at the same time, we accepted into Australia refugees who have made an enormous contribution to this country.
Refugees, by their very nature, are risk-takers, they’re entrepreneurial, highly motivated and we are, I think, greatly increased in our stature and our benefits are, if we take more refugees.
I’m not suggesting that it should be unlimited, but the experience is that refugees that we’ve taken over the last 50 years have made an enormous contribution to this country.
JONES: Now, the Prime Minister is arguing that the circumstances are completely different to what they were when the Vietnamese boat people were arriving. This time around, people-smuggling is at the heart of it, that it’s essentially a criminal operation that he’s stopping.
MENADUE: People-smuggling is as old as refugee flows. In Europe, the Jews were being persecuted and vilified and attacked by the Nazis. If they could get money together to help some of their family out, they did it and they paid people smugglers.
It’s as old as refugee flows, and I believe that people in Australia, who live comfortably in their homes, shouldn’t point the finger at a father in Afghanistan who has his whole family threatened, his wife and his children, particularly his daughters, his sons conscripted to fight with the Taliban. If I was in his situation, I would seriously consider paying people-smugglers to get my children out to a better life.
I think it is grossly unfair to say that we should punish refugees and asylum seekers because of people smugglers. It is a gross thing to say.
JONES: One last question, though, because the key argument of the Government – and this seems to be accepted by both sides of politics – is that the people, the boat people are essentially queue jumpers, that they’re taking the places of people in even more desperate situations.
MENADUE: My experience as secretary of the Immigration Department, is there is no such thing as a queue. Refugee flows, by their nature, are chaotic and disorderly. There is no other way to describe it. They go in all sorts of directions, and whether you happen to be on a so-called queue, is sheer – it’s a lottery.
I remember the case – we used to open a processing centre near Khan Kane in Thailand, and we’d put out advice that we’d be there for interviewing, and thousands of people would appear in a queue. And we’d process for two or three weeks, we’d make our quota and we’d close the processing. The queue would disappear. Word would get out again later that we were coming back and the queue would appear.
It is a disorderly program just by its very nature, and there is no such thing, in my view, as a queue. It is in the minds of bureaucrats in Canberra, who want tidy formula and rules that try and force other people to fit into it. Refugee flows are just not like that.