MITCHELL: Could I ask you about those photographs at issue, and it’s quite a simple point. When did Australia or Australian officials find out about prisoners being abused?

HOWARD: The advice I have is that the abuse allegations or allegations in relation to abuse, as distinct from a Red Cross report in October that was critical of conditions – that is food, of clothing and of communications opportunities with families – that was in earlier this year, I think about February, I’d have to check the file to say exactly which, and reference to those reports was communicated from Baghdad to other officials in Canberra. The complaints have been made to the American and British authorities. The American and British authorities had indicated that they were responding, and in fact the Americans had made a statement I think on the 16th of January to the effect that allegations had been made and they had been investigating them. I have said before and I repeat, I became conscious of them along with a lot of other people when those photographs were published in April.

MITCHELL: So when this report went to Major George O’Kane in October, it didn’t specify abuse of prisoners?

HOWARD: No. This is what I’m told by the Defence Department.

MITCHELL: Well who did Major O’Kane inform about it?

HOWARD: I understand he would have informed some of his Defence superiors.

MITCHELL: And that wasn’t raised with Government?

HOWARD: Well it certainly wasn’t raised with me.

MITCHELL: Should it have been?

HOWARD: Well not necessarily because if he… if it didn’t involve… firstly it didn’t involve any Australians. I mean that’s the first thing. I mean can I just say again and again, in fairness to the Australian personnel who are serving in Iraq, they’ve had nothing to do with this business.

HOWARD: Well I wanted to ask you about that because Amnesty are saying that Australia is as guilty…

HOWARD: Amnesty is wrong. I mean so in other words we now have a situation where if an abuse is committed by personnel of another army and we’re not involved in it, we disapprove of it, we condemn it, in some way we are responsible. I mean I think that is the kind of, you know, absurd, unjust guilt by association which is an impression attempted to be generated by the Government’s critics on this. You keep talking about it, when did you know, what did you know. The whole idea is to build the impression that in some way we are part of it.

MITCHELL: Well let’s address it just one other way. Major O’Kane found out in October, he told his authorities. Did they tell the Defence… did they tell Senator Hill?

HOWARD: My understanding is that, and Senator Hill has made a statement in Parliament about this, that Senator Hill’s awareness of the allegations of serious abuse was the same as mine.

MITCHELL: So he wasn’t told what Major O’Kane had reported.

HOWARD: Yes but you’ve got to understand that if he weren’t told, there is nothing…

MITCHELL: Well shouldn’t he have been told?

HOWARD: No, not necessarily.

MITCHELL: Okay….

(HILLARY: The hair splitting went on – and rather than handing him a tube of Frizz-Eze, Mitchell let the Prime Minister cower behind more legalisms and pedantry:)

MITCHELL: But isn’t it reasonable, say as part of the coalition of the willing, we can either be seen as an accessory after the fact or at least…

HOWARD: No, an accessory after the fact is somebody who does something to help or harbour or relieve…

MITCHELL: At least have a…

HOWARD: … after they’ve committed a crime, and we have not done that. It’s quite unfair on our defence personnel for that…

MITCHELL: I’m not having a go at the defence personnel. I’m having a go at the Government because I argue that the Government should have objected strongly.

HOWARD: Yes well I’m saying it’s unfair on us. I mean ‘accessory after the fact’ has a particular meaning.

MITCHELL: Well what about…

HOWARD: …it’s not fair. I mean we became as a Government, we became aware… I mean speaking for myself as Prime Minister and it’s my understanding that this applies in relation to both Mr Downer and Senator Hill, that we became aware, conscious of this in April, and of course by then an American and British response was well underway…

HILLARY: Yeah, yeah. Poor shipwrecked sods on the decks of container vessels and prisoners in Iraqi gaols are a long way from our comfy homes. That’s how Howard’s got away with his shifty lies so far.

Those very same comfy homes, however, will be at risk for many Australians who have felt relaxed and comfortable under his government when interest rates leap in the wake of his shifty, inflationary Budget.

Will they wake up to the sleight of hand tricks he’s been playing before or after the election, though? Can Labor stir them? Or have voters already just simply had enough and given up on John Howard and all his excuses. Are they telling the truth – unlike him?

Peter Fray

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