You won’t read a better wrap of the spin and political implications of the “children in the water” video scandal which is seriously breaking out against the Howard government.

Day one Question time, and the government has to own up to there being no children being thrown in the water by asylum seekers. It has to own up to there being no children having their lips sewn up by their parents. And the government still doesn’t have a reasonable answer to whether communications were tapped in last years Tampa incident. All on the same day the last remaining conservative state government falls in South Australia.

I say ‘incident’, as this correspondent rejects the view there was ever a Tampa ‘crisis’. What occurred was a cabinet ‘crisis’ as they scrambled to find a way to back up the Prime Minister’s bald statement that these refugees would not set foot on Australian soil. Like General Douglas Macarthur’s “I will return” about the Phillipines in the Second World War, the PR machine was turned into hyperdrive to deliver credibility to the Prime Ministers position. Whatever the cost, in truth or dollars, the government has been making it up as it has gone along ever since.

Let’s be blunt and say if the Tampa had been an Australian ship, the government’s actions could never have taken place. If it had been a U.S. container ship, the government wouldn’t have dared to act the way it did. But standing up to few Norwegians would be easier. Of course, the ship’s captain proved to be much cannier than the government expected. He knew the threats to confiscate his ship were hollow. (Australia would have had a trade enbargo from major shipping companies if they had tried.) The captain wasn’t going sit in mid-ocean with more than 400 refugees for a week while the government puffed up its chest and demanded he go to Indonesia. He sailed into Australian waters, and from that point the government made up its responses as they went.

So they sent in the SAS, but took care not to be seen as taking over command of the vessel as this would increase the asylum seekers ability to claim refugee status. And don’t let the asylum seekers speak to the troops in case they claimed refugee status, and don’t let anyone else aboard in case they report what is really going on or pass on appeals for refugee status.

The whole legal basis for the taking over of the ship was always doubtful, which was why they rushed through retrospective legislation. Which is why you start to wonder if the claims about the bugging of calls is true. Cabinet seemed to be quite willing to ignore any legal nicities in attempting to back the Prime Minister’s “they shall not land” position.

From day one, the government’s media arm took complete control of the information flow about military actions involved in resolving the ‘incident’. No one from defence was allowed to talk, everything had to go through Peter Reith’s press secretary Ross Hampton. Military personnel were denied e-mail and other communications while patrolling the Timor Sea. Everything was tied down with tight media management. It probably would have come unstuck before the election, except the September 11 terrorist attacks made the whole idea of a border protection crisis seem more plausible.

Now the cons and lies are coming out, you can expect a savage turn by the Canberra press gallery. They now look like they have been played for mugs. And don’t think all those senior journalists will take kindly to being lied to.

Just take the case of the baby throwing incident. Reith said early on there was a videotape, but was not keen to release it. Instead he released the still pictures, and when questioned about their authenticity, queried why the journalists would question the word of the defence forces.

From the departmental report, it is pretty clear who the media should have doubted. We now know the Defence forces did tell the government the truth. It’s just that Reithy didn’t fess up to his porky, inadvertent or deliberate. And who can believe the government’s excuse that the reports got lost in offices, so ministers never knew they had misled the public.

I think we can safely call that the “dog ate my homework” excuse. The only way such a claim can hold water is if very senior people are now sacked. Graham Morris got his marching orders for far less over the travel rorts affair. If heads don’t roll on this, the suspicion will remain that Ministers did not want to know. This is very, very, smelly.

Even in the last week of the campaign, the Prime Minister was referring to the baby throwing incident. The day after the video was released, and doubt was thrown on the government’s initial position, the PM shifted to a new report about a boat being set alight by its occupants, and children being burnt. What was the idea here? If we can’t prove they tried to drown their children, we’ll show they tried to burn them alive instead.

Even Glenn Milne might change his tune. Last week he was happy to run the bizarre story on how surveys showed Americans had not changed their views towards Australia post-Tampa, and this week it was a suck-up about how abominably Howard had been treated in Jakarta. Just the day before the election, the PM was interviewed by Milne and referred to the ONA report as justification for his claim about baby-throwing. Now we know that report was based on media reports of Howard and Ruddock’s initial claims about the incident. Even Milne must question whether that response was given honestly, or was just another subterfuge.

But you get a hint of what might be the government’s new line from an interview on Lateline on the Wednesday before election day. A senior defence spokesman had been unwise enough to indicate that a correction to initial statements had been made by the defence department. Having already recorded one interview with Lateline, Howard’s people rushed back and demanded to do the interview again, after a mild retraction had been beaten out of the Admiral. When asked in this second interview about whether it was subterfuge to have released the still photos and then not corrected initial statements, the PM replied “You should ask Peter Reith about that”.

Well, you might hear that line a bit now, and you wouldn’t want to be in Reith’s shoes. One month elapsed between the release of the photos and election day, and not once did he try and correct his initial statements. The departmental investigation has shown that for four weeks, written advice correcting the minister’s statements had existed. It is beyond credibility that no one in the Minister’s office knew this. You can’t help but think there is more to come on this, and there will be a whole pack of senior journalists out to save their reputations by now turning on the subterfuge they accepted last year.

If I was the Labor Party, I would abandon trying to resolve fully a position on asylum seekers and mandatory detention. The tactic now should be to fudge the policy position, and deflect attention on to the government’s handling of the affair.

Just start to sprout the line “We don’t trust the government.” “We think the government is lying, to us and the Australian people.” Sow the seeds of doubt. Because surely there is more to come.

New Zealand has already processed the Tampa asylum seekers it took, and granted them refugee status. Ours still sit on Nauru, with no word on their fate, and no offers from anyone else to take these people of our hands. There are more in Papua New Guinea, and there are questions about whether they have been sent to a malaria infested island. It is costing a fortune, and will keep costing a fortune, as you can ensure Nauru will extract every concession it can out of the government if the asylum seekers are to stay there.

The government made up its entire response to the Tampa incident as it went along. It has been making up its ‘Pacific solution’ policy in the same way ever since. At some point, this country has several thousand asylum seekers locked up, around Australia and across the Pacific, that it is going to have to do something with. At the moment, you get the feeling the government hopes the new Afghan government can get its act together quickly so all these people can be sent back. Some hope given the current parlous state of that country.

Still, Tony Abbott is wheeled out to rabbit on about border protection. His ham-fisted attempts to justify eavesdropping merely launched new questions. (If I was the government, I wouldn’t let a loose cannon like Abbott, well known for going over the top in arguing a position, ever comment on security issues.)

All the government can hope is that it can ride out the next two weeks. Because on 4 March, Alan “the parrot” (Gloria) Jones is back on air. And you can bet the Prime Minister will be on the program, dismissing all these concerns raised, and you can be sure the Parrot will believe him on every excuse he makes.

But even an obsequious parrot may not be enough for the government on this one. The cover up smells to high heaven, and there is a pack of bloodhounds following the trail. You can bet the worse the government looks, the more documents will leak. And all this before a Senate committee even examines the issue.

If it looks too bad, the government may appoint an inquiry, but you can be sure they will want it in private, claiming secrecy is important for national defence. It may be too late to try that trick. After all the security claims of last year, I doubt Labor will fall for that one again.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW