How the 'children overboard' lie developed

Issue 

BY ALISON DELLIT

On October 7, a fishing boat overloaded with desperate asylum seekers encountered the HMAS Adelaide north of Christmas Island. The warship fired warning shots to stop the boat from moving into Australian waters. Frightened by the shots, some people jumped into the water. Asylum seekers held children in the air to alert the navy that there were children on board. One parent held a child over the side of the boat so it could defecate. A confused navy communication about threats to throw a child overboard was sent to immigration minister Philip Ruddock. Based on this, Ruddock declared that children had been thrown overboard. This is what ensued:

October 8 — At 9am, a navy report on the incident, which does not mention children being thrown overboard, is circulated to Prime Minister John Howard, defence minister Peter Reith, immigration minister Philip Ruddock and other ministers. Later in the day, Howard condemned the "sickening behaviour" by asylum seekers of throwing children overboard.

The boat sank. Ruddock accused asylum seekers of destroying it deliberately. No evidence was produced to substantiate this allegation. A rescue operation by the HMAS Adelaide was photographed.

October 9 — The photographs of the sinking ship and frightened refugees in the water are emailed to Reith's senior staff.

October 10 — The prime minister's department was advised that there was no evidence that children were thrown overboard. HMAS Adelaide's Commander Banks reported to his superiors that no children had been thrown into the water. Banks also took statutory declarations from his crew to that effect.

Reith released two close-up pictures taken on October 8 of children in the water, but do not show the sinking ship. He told the media that they were taken on October 7 are of children who had been thrown overboard.

October 11 — Reith and his advisers were warned by the increasingly nervous military brass that the pictures did not show children who had been thrown overboard. Reith then told the media that there was also a video of the incident, and repeats the claim that children were thrown overboard.

October 31 — Reith was told by Brigadier Silverstone that the video does not indicate that children were thrown in the water. Reith replied, "Well, we'd better not see the video".

November 7 — Acting defence force head Angus Houston told Reith that there is no evidence at all that children were thrown into the sea.

People smuggling task force head Jane Halton was told that the photographs have been misrepresented and she called Howard's chief adviser Miles Jordana. Jordana told Halton that he knew.

Jordana discovered that the Office of National Assessments report, which told Howard he was right about children being thrown overboard, was based on media reports of government statements and reported this to Howard.

Howard and Reith conferred on the phone, and both later claimed that Reith did not tell Howard that the allegations of children being thrown overboard were false.

November 8 — Howard addressed the National Press Club and yet again claimed that children had been thrown into the water. He cited the discredited ONA report as evidence. By this stage his key advisors, Reith and his office staff all knew that he was presenting false information.

Election propaganda, depicting Howard with fists clenched and the slogan, "We decide who comes to this country", was distributed to all voters in marginal seats. Full-page newspaper ads with the same image and words were published in all major newspapers.

November 10 — The Coalition parties won the federal election with an increased majority.

From Green Left Weekly, March 6, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.