The Howard Government is trying to make the issue of the Iraqi civilian death toll go away by ignoring it. The strategy was unveiled last year when it denied the legitimacy of a study published in The Lancet (654,965 dead since March 2003):

16 October 2006, Alexander Downer: “The estimate of Iraqi deaths in The Lancet is not credible.” 

It continues this year with a refusal to answer questions about a UN study released a fortnight ago.

Yet the same method used in The Lancet study was used to compile figures on civilian deaths in Darfur which Mr Downer quoted in parliament in May 2005. Mr Downer was then asked if the figure he quoted in relation to Darfur was accurate.

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31 October 2006: “Estimates on casualties in Iraq, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the methodology used to compile them, vary widely.”

Following the government’s denial of The Lancet study, 27 prominent Australian doctors, researchers and scientists defended the study in The Age:

The study was undertaken by respected researchers assisted by one of the world’s foremost biostatisticians. Its methodology is sound and its conclusions should be taken seriously.

It is noteworthy that the same methodology has been used in recent mortality surveys in Darfur and Democratic Republic of Congo, but there has been no criticism of these surveys.

Health Minister Tony Abbott was then asked a series of questions about the credibility of that committee, to which he followed team rules and offered this non-answer. “The subject matter of this article falls outside the scope of the Minister for Health and Ageing’s portfolio responsibilities.”

Two weeks ago, a much more politically palatable figure arrived. The UN reported 34,452 civilian deaths for 2006, which if multiplied out over the four years of the invasion would be roughly a quarter of The Lancet study. But don’t expect the government to comment. In fact, it appears any acknowledgement of an Iraqi civilian death toll by the Australian government is too politically awkward to consider lest they be seen as taking some measure of responsibility for it.

Crikey sent Mr Downer a list of questions about the government’s position on Iraq’s civilian death toll, on the difficulty of compiling such a figure, and on the credibility of The Lancet study and the UN report. After following up the minister’s press office numerous times over the last week, we hadn’t received a response by today’s publishing deadline.