Bob Debus is one of the Rudd Government’s most experienced ministers, having been a senior member of the Carr ministry for several years in NSW. He’s also one of the least eloquent, with a hesitant manner only bettered by Joel Fitzgibbon’s permanent rabbit-in-the-headlights look.

This doesn’t make his refusal to engage in speculation or comment on the boat explosion look any better. His press conference yesterday turned semi-feral. A more forthright minister would have batted off demands from journalists for information with greater vigour. The presence of Rear Admiral Allan du Toit, whose media manner isn’t particularly martial — in fact he appeared utterly clueless — didn’t contribute in any way to proceedings.

Nevertheless, Debus did the right thing, as did the Navy. The Navy, the Department of Defence and Customs would have been achingly aware of the consequences of providing inaccurate information, and all the more cautious for that. But this was not Children Overboard 2. It was much more serious than that: at least three and probably five people are dead and a number seriously injured. ADF personnel have also been injured and exposed to serious harm. This is a crime that must be investigated, and politicians and officials speculating on who did what is not merely unnecessary, it’s actually damaging.

Quite what Colin Barnett thought he was doing rushing ill-informed speculation into the public arena when the event didn’t even occur within Western Australian jurisdiction isn’t clear. If it turns out that this really was an act of sabotage, Barnett’s comments may undermine the successful prosecution of the perpetrator.

The Press Gallery, however, weren’t buying that stuff. If one politician could engage in damaging speculation, other politicians should do so as well. Debus’s refusal seemed to goad them. Perhaps, when you come from an environment in which any inquiry is considered, usually correctly, as a political ploy, it’s hard to grasp that criminal investigations are different.

Debus’s stolid refusal to cooperate eventually started working this morning; anxious for something further to report, the media focus shifted to the recovery operation for the survivors. The circumstances in which the explosion occurred will be left to police investigation, as it should be.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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