Tim Blair


New Criterion



Thursday, September 02, 2004
THE SENATE'S SCRAFTON COMMITTEE is now drifting in mid-ocean, its engine having exploded through its hull yesterday, but skipper Robert Ray is busy trying to construct a life-raft out of some more 'secret' witnesses. It's too late to save the ship. When the hot air of its opposition majority puffs the hulk into the Senate after the election no-one will be standing on the dock waving.

The clear facts of the matter have escaped Auntie's contract commentator on Radio National Breakfast, Michelle Grattan. She thinks the enquiry still has momentum because Mike Scrafton is still "strong" in his assertion that he really did tell the PM the four points reported two posts ago.

It really won't do. 'Trust me, I'm a public servant' has more cred than 'Trust me, I'm a politician', but it can't survive clear evidence. At the end of yesterday's evidence, Scrafton was left with, in effect, one phone call to the Prime Minister instead of three, having already assured the Senate committee in earlier questioning by Brandis that points 2-4 of his litany were communicated in the supposed later phone calls. Since all parties are agreed on what was covered by the first phone call from the PM, Scrafton's error makes it likely that he is confounding not only the number and length and time of his calls to the PM, but also the identity of any person he did in fact report his views to.

Perhaps because of the spectacular collapse of the core of Scrafton's evidence, no reports I've seen to date have covered other matters on which Scrafton's public claims, supported by stat. dec. and polygraph, were seriously in error. These errors are almost as damaging to Scrafton's credibility, and compound his failures on his main evidence.

In the morning session of the enquiry yesterday, Scrafton was led by Brandis to confirm his account of his reasons for lying to the public service enquiry conducted by Ms Bryant immediately after the 2001 election. This was not hard, since Scrafton put his reasons in writing as an introductory statement to the committe, which has made it available here.

Scrafton writes, as a reason for not telling the truth to Bryant, that there had been "A Cabinet decision directing that ministerial and prime ministeral staff and public servants serving in ministerial offices at the time were not to appear before the Senate." When Senator Brandis pointed out that there was no Cabinet decision on this matter until 11 March 2002, some months later, at the time of the Senate's first 'kids overboard' enquiry, Scrafton resorted to a claim that his Defence colleagues, who were conducting their own enquiry, had led him to believe that was the case. Brandis then led Scrafton along the trail of his own evidence, to conclude that he had met with Ms Bryant (in November 2001) before he spoke to his Defence colleagues.

Scrafton claimed that Ms Bryant's terms of reference prevented her canvassing the actions of senior public servants attached to Ministerial offices, as Scrafton was. Brandis presented the Bryant terms of reference, and again Scrafton was left unsupported.

When considering these highly relevant errors on Scrafton's part, and his claim that he was intimidated by the charming Max Moore-Wilton, nothing in Scrafton's reponses dealt with this intriguing question: why, if he felt constrained by the political sensitivity of his position, did he not decline to answer Bryant's questions, and why, instead, did he construct what he eventually admitted was an outright lie (in his statement, Scrafton refers only to "claims that I lied")?

Curiouser and curiouser.

Without Scrafton's now-discredited recollections there is a simpler version of the events of November 7th and 8th, 2001, a version consistent with what survives of Scrafton's evidence and the evidence reported from the Prime Minister and his advisers.

When Defence Minister Reith heard from Scrafton, or Reith's other advisers, of Defence's view that the later photographic evidence of kids in the water was from a later time than the video, and did not show kids being thrown into the water, he arranged for the Prime Minster to phone Scrafton. (You may ask why Reith, if he thought that Howard did not want to be told the truth, should have passed Scrafton's number on to him, and why Howard made the calls).

Mike Scrafton was a second-rank official, comfortable in the political shadows but touched by the worthy and righteous service ethic of Defence, and now in sole charge of Defence Department business in the office of the caretaker Minister for Defence during an election campaign. He is between marriages, in the middle of a boozy dinner with a lady love in a Sydney restaurant when he takes the PM's first, and only substantial, call.

Mike Scrafton is touched by the fame stick. The PM, not a regular interlocutor of Scrafton's, is seeking his advice in an atmosphere highly-charged with pre-election tension. His head is so turned by the experience that he exaggerates the event. According to his evidence yesterday, his lady companion was angry at his devotion to his duty to the PM, at the way it had disrupted their evening together, although we now know that the whole business took less than ten minutes. In the course of that ten minutes, Scrafton volunteers, the lady consumed most of their two bottles of wine. We must hope for his sake that this was not the woman he married, or that he misremembers his own wine consumption.

The drama continues the next morning, before the PM's crucial address to the Press Club, and Scrafton talks to a number of others - officials, ministerial staffers and Defence colleagues, as it was his daily work to do. Like the debater who thinks of the perfect riposte the morning after the debate, Scrafton is constructing in his mind the advice he should have given, and later perhaps gives to others, and conflates the actual with the ideal.

You may think this too fanciful an account for government work, but we need it, or something like it, because we should suppose that Mike Scrafton is an honest man.

This leaves open the question of Scrafton's motive for going public with his faulty memories. According to his statement "My reasons for acting when I did ... cover both the personal and professional dimensions of my life." Indeed. And "the final catalyst and determinant of the exact timing was the derogatory manner with which the 43 signatories to the letter to the Prime Minister [the Duffers Declaration, published shortly before] were dismissed, and the way in which the issue they raised had been trivialised." Scrafton, it seems, was passionate about good government.

This passes the responsibility for Scrafton's timing to the Duffers, but fails to avoid the assumption we must make that as a senior public servant, who had spent a term in a Minister's office, he was keenly aware that he was lobbing a grenade into the pre-election campaign. There are, of course, other ways former public servants can participate in public debate about good government without going head to head with a Prime Minister during a de facto election campaign.

Scrafton's account of his own motivation also leaves unanswered other questions. Not all of his former Defence colleagues were on the side of the Duffers, or of Scrafton's own account of the evidence on 'kids overboard'. Some, Admiral Barrie at the first Senate enquiry if I remember correctly, were publicly committed to another interpretation. Scrafton's own evidence confirmed this. Did Scrafton have less regard for their integrity than, say, General Gration's? Considering Gration's public adoption of extremist political positions over the past several years, Scrafton's choice of the side he wished to support can not be regarded as non-political.

It is also striking that John Howard's response to the Duffers Declaration was restrained and courteous. Only the Other Ranks among Coalition MPs responded aggressively. This leads us to other aspects of Scrafton's motivation, coming at the end of his long explanation. He claims that he felt "tainted" by his association with the Government's position, an association revealed at the first Senate enquiry. He does not reveal feeling 'tainted' by his unforced lies to Ms Bryant's enquiry, but perhaps he was. "There is" Scrafton admits "a cathartic aspect to my actions."

In fact Scrafton's statement to the Senate committee yesterday is more about him than about the circumstances of his dealings with the Prime Minister. On details, on matters of fact, Scrafton expects us to tolerate very large degrees of inaccuracy in his recollections, because his motives are pure, and he is seeking redemption.

You can buy that if you like. I don't. Under many a grey, submissive servant there hides a narcissist waiting for the call to the limelight. Some of us can not admit to our political commitments, but still feel the need to express them.

I think Mike Scrafton is an intelligent man who was struck down by the fame stick, but lacks the self-awareness to see what it has done to him.

I think that Mike Scrafton is an honest man in error, because he is in error, and not even a moderately stupid political shonk would have allowed himself to be caught publicly with his evidence in such a pathetic condition.

Whatever your interpretation of Scrafton's motives, his standing as a critic of the Prime Minister is utterly destroyed. The transcript of yesterday's evidence, when it eventually comes, will put that beyond all of the media's prevarication.

Auntie's stunningly misleading report of yesterday's proceedings was:
At the Senate inquiry into the latest claims, Mike Scrafton firmly stuck to his story
when, in fact, his story had collapsed and he merely stuck to his assertions. Yesterday's item on PM, although angled as an attack on Brandis, provides some of the direct evidence of how malleable Mike Scrafton's certainties were.

Mark Latham, whose description of the PM as a liar was riding on Scrafton's evidence, will not retract, but repeats the charge.