Navy chief torpedo over children overboard
Phillip Coorey Chief Political Correspondent, smh
November 15, 2008
THE nation's former top military officer, Admiral Chris Barrie, has cast fresh doubt on the Howard government's integrity by revealing he had a "testy conversation" with Peter Reith over photos the then defence minister used to back claims that refugees had thrown their children overboard.
And the former chief of the navy, Vice-Admiral David Shackleton, has accused the Howard government of deliberately frustrating efforts to tell the truth - that children were not thrown overboard - because the untrue version suited its election campaign theme of border security.
Admiral Barrie also criticised the former government's decision to join the Iraq war, which began eight months after he retired as chief of the defence force. "I have to say even up to the day I retired, I never saw any evidence that said suddenly we had to go off and do a job in Iraq."
The men were interviewed for the four-part ABC1 series The Howard Years, which begins Monday night.
Speaking candidly seven years after the children overboard affair, Admiral Barrie says the former government was so keen to go public with what were still unfounded claims that he first heard about them in the media.
"Ministers were already in the public place talking about it before I'd even heard about it," he says.
The affair unfolded early in the 2001 election campaign, which was already being dominated by border protection and national security.
After the government released pictures taken from HMAS Adelaide purporting to prove children had been thrown into the sea, an outraged Vice-Admiral Shackleton rang Admiral Barrie.
"I phoned Chris Barrie to say these are the wrong pictures. These are pictures of people being rescued. These are not pictures of people being thrown in the water," he told the ABC. Vice-Admiral Shackleton suggested Admiral Barrie tell Mr Reith, which he says he did.
"Peter Reith and I had a testy conversation about it," Admiral Barrie said.
But Mr Reith denied this, telling the ABC he and Admiral Barrie never had a testy conversation about anything.
"I don't remember ever having a conversation with Chris Barrie about the validity of the photos."
Admiral Barrie appeared to have been cowed by the encounter and said he subsequently maintained his original advice to Mr Reith that children had been thrown overboard.
Vice-Admiral Shackleton, still clearly angry at what occurred, told the ABC that HMAS Adelaide's captain, Norman Banks, concluded three days after the boat was intercepted that no children were thrown overboard and it was inconceivable that "Chris Barrie and others" would not be aware of this.
Vice-Admiral Shackleton concluded that the government suppressed the truth for political purposes. "It wouldn't be hard for me to say that in a political context. The story was playing into the stance that the government of the time was taking,' he says.
"To get more mileage out of it you build in stops to let information be clarified, because it's in your own interest to keep the story running."
Mr Howard rejects this.
Only days before the election, Admiral Barrie was overseas and the acting CDF Angus Houston decided to reopen the matter. He rang Mr Reith to try to impress on him the truth but Mr Reith was not interested and told him to check his facts with Admiral Barrie when he returned - after the election.
Admiral Barrie told the ABC that Mr Howard and Mr Reith "chose to accept whichever advice they liked".
Mr Howard maintains that he would have won the 2001 election without border protection, MV Tampa or the September 11 attacks. "I believe we would have won without any of those things," he said.
He also says his most memorable line for that campaign - "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come" - was spontaneous. "I came up with that line on the spot. It was not research-driven," he said.
Mr Howard is still defensive over the weapons of mass destruction claims in Iraq, saying "programs and the capacity to generate stockpiles [of WMDs] was certainly found".
"We didn't take the country to war based on a lie. We didn't invent the intelligence," he said.