Tim Blair


New Criterion



Thursday, December 09, 2004
The tawdry stunt that began with Mike Scrafton's letter to The Australian accusing the Prime Minister of deliberately misleading the nation over the kids overboard affair has come to its inevitably tawdry conclusion.

The Senate Committee's Labor majority has found in favour of Scrafton and against the Prime Minister. In one sense that is a remarkable achievement. As Senator Brandis's questioning of Scrafton revealed, his account of what he told the PM and when could not have been true. So how does the Labor majority come to its conclusion?

Simple, really. They cover the embarrassing implosion of Scrafton's evidence with that handy little band-aid "alleged". As in the following:
3.10 The Prime Minister’s answer also fails to acknowledge the significant doubts about the ’children overboard’ incident that flowed from Mr Scrafton’s alleged advice that no-one in Defence still believed such an event had occurred.
Much of the rest of what you might call the substance of the Committee's report is concerned with documenting the Prime Minister's failure to acknowledge what Scrafton alleges he told him.

"Mr Scrafton’s claims...", we are told; "Mr Scrafton has said that he left the Prime Minister in no doubt...", "Mr Scrafton’s claims suggest these comments were deliberately misleading", "In short, there is a clear conflict between Mr Scrafton’s testimony ... and Mr Howard’s denial in Parliament" (3.22) and so on, as the fatally-tainted Scrafton claims are deployed by the Committee majority as if they were evidentiary gold.

This is my favourite example of Senatorial double-talk: "The Prime Minister’s answer also fails to acknowledge the significant doubts about the ’children overboard’ incident that flowed from Mr Scrafton’s alleged advice" (3.10).

The Labor majority's sole basis for accepting the Scrafton claims are the reports of others to whom he passed on accounts of his telephone conversations with the PM during a well-lubricated dinner with his girl-friend. I had better remind you, since the Committee's report fails to deal clearly with the issue, that the telephone records established beyond doubt that Scrafton could not have told the Prime Minister what he claimed in his letter to the press.

The Committee's finding on this point,
3.87 The Committee notes Mr Scrafton’s lack of certainty about the number and timing of his phone calls with the Prime Minister on 7 November 2001 and his certainty about the key points discussed during those conversations.
would be greeted with derision by anyone with more than an infant's grasp of the probity of evidence in circumstances like these.

The Committee's supine acceptance, at face value, of Scrafton's explanation of his deliberate lies to the earlier Bryant enquiry into the same accusations against Howard is equally risible. In the course of the the Committee's enquiry it emerged that the Cabinet directive Scrafton used as an excuse on this matter was not in fact issued until long after the Bryant enquiry

Apart from all this, the Committe fails to accommodate the simple and uncontested fact that, as the Coalition Senators put it in their minority report, Scrafton's allegations were "based upon Mr. Scrafton’s unassisted recollection almost three years after the event." (paragraph 16)

This report tarnishes the reputation of the Senate staff who were obliged by the ill-tempered Labor majority to persist with a stunt that had collapsed on itself so spectacularly before the election. The innocent among us might have hoped that Parliamentary staff would have had the professionalism not to draft such low-grade partisan twaddle, or the integrity to refuse to accept it if it was the handiwork of the Labor majority.

Instead, this report will stand as a monument to the depths to which Parliamentary procedures have been lowered, not by government pressures but by the contempt in which they are held by an anti-government majority soon, thank the Lord, to expire. The Coalition's Senator Brandis has ensured this by including in his minority report the unedited transcript of his cross-examination of Scrafton's evidence.

The extraordinary thing is that John Howard, despite the pressures he was under during the previous election campaign during which much of this was played out, comes across as the most credible and the most trustworthy of the parties involved. It may take a generation before the gatekeepers in the media and academia allow that simple fact into general circulation, but you can know it now, just by reading this sad little report.

And what of those other defenders of honesty in politics, the Australian Democrats? Their then leader, Andrew Bartlett, was a member of the Committee. Here is what comes down from the Democrats moral high ground these days:
I support the contents and findings of the main report, but wish to make a couple of additional points.
You don't need me to tell you that those "additional points" do not bear on the central issue of whether John Howard or Mike Scrafton was the more trustworthy witness. Call it pusillanimous, call it gutless if you prefer, but it's not the kind of third way that's worth electing to our Senate.