The intense strain on the two people in Senate Committee room 2S1 today was palpable. The two had by very difficult choice propped up the credibility of a cowardly and bullying Prime Minister for nearly three years. Yet Howard’s point man on children overboard – George Brandis, whose own credibility has been questioned this week – put the boot into the truth-teller, Mike Scrafton.
Yesterday’s resumed children overboard inquiry produced the most dramatic, and painful, human drama I have seen in Parliament or on the stage.
Mike Scrafton has turned his life upside down to have his very belated say. His account of how he came to the decision, and the never-before-heard perspective of an ethical public servant, can be read in The catharsis of Mike Scrafton.
There’s never been commercial sponsorship for a whistleblower. He’s lost his very precious anonymity and privacy. He knew his life would be trawled over by the man whose image he threatened, and that anything would be used – completely out of context if necessary – to destroy his reputation to save John Howard’s.
Scrafton, after correcting the record, signed a statutory declaration swearing on oath that he was telling the truth, took the most credible lie detector test available, and submitted himself to scrutiny by the people of Australia through the resumed Senate children overboard inquiry. He knew that would mean brutal cross examination by Howard’s de facto barrister George Brandis, the most brilliant legal mind in the Parliament.
Queensland Senator Brandis had yesterday been accused by a former senior Liberal Party official in that state, by statutory declaration, of calling Howard a “lying rodent” over the children overboard scandal, and of complaining that “we’ve got to go off and cover his arse again on this”.
Last night, Brandis countered the accusations with his own statutory declaration denying that he had said these or similar words on the occasion alleged or at all, either in public or private. The significance of signing a statutory declaration is that you swear an oath that what you are saying is true. If it is not, then criminal charges can be brought against you. You are putting your personal integrity on the line.
Brandis submitted his oath in the knowledge that many people in Parliament House and beyond know that he does call Howard “the rodent” in private. Under pressure, he made partial admissions to @MikeSeccombe.
Brandis deliberately sought to destroy Scrafton’s reputation through the use of untested, unsworn assertions of fact based on ‘evidence’ he insisted be kept confidential and the source for which he refused to reveal. He also refused to take the stand to be questioned as a witness.
And who was that source? The Prime Minister. And who backed his version? The four Howard political staffers who signed statements backing Howard’s denial of Scrafton’s claim, but all of whom followed the PM’s lead in NOT signing statutory declarations and all of whom refused to appear before the committee. Their motivations are, quite simply, blindingly obvious.
Thus, to get cheap headlines designed to destroy the reputation of the man in the dock – on behalf of the man who refused to subject himself to the same scrutiny yet triumphantly beamed on national TV tonight that Brandis must be telling the truth because he WAS prepared to sign a statutory declaration – Brandis stooped to the level of feigning shock that he might not be believed, that:
1. Howard was in the Lodge at all times on the night when Scrafton testified that he told him there was no truth in the children overboard claims;
2. There were only eight phones at the Lodge; two landlines, Mr and Mrs Howard’s mobiles, and the four mobiles of the Howard ‘team’;
3. Phone records he happened to have before him but which he steadfastly refused to release, or to say from whom he got them, showed that Howard made two phone calls, not three as recollected by Scrafton, and that Scrafton could not possibly have communicated his advice on the veracity of the children overboard claims in the 51 seconds Brandis said the second call took.
This sounds complicated, I know, and I’ll try to put the full transcript up tomorrow. But consider this: Howard fled to the polls at least a week earlier than he had planned to avoid Question Time in the House of Representatives, the now inaptly named ‘People’s House’. This is proved by tonight’s TV news showing both Howard and Latham welcoming home our Olympic athletes and sending off new troops to Iraq. What a perfect pre-election schedule for Howard!
Australia had a long campaign, quite simply, because John Howard needed to avoid accountability for misleading the Australian people in the last week of the 2001 election. And George Brandis is abetting him with no regard for the ‘little person’ – Mike Scrafton – who he has unfairly attempted to destroy to protect a man he despises, John Howard.
You could see from George Brandis’s face that today’s performance in Senate Committee room 2S1 was destroying him.
The question is why? Watch this space.
Still Not Happy, John!’ Book Extract
Howard had called his ‘trust me’ election in 2004 a week earlier than planned to avoid facing questions in the House of Representatives about how he’d won the last one. The Australian had just published a letter from Michael Scrafton, a senior Defence Department official working for Peter Reith in 2001, who revealed he’d told Howard days before the election that no children had been thrown overboard by their parents from a boat of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia.
Scrafton, now a Victorian public servant, was setting the record straight in the Australian in 2004 because the government had trashed as the ravings of “doddering daiquiri diplomats” a recent statement by Australia’s most senior and respected retired Defence Force officers and diplomats.
They’d said that Howard’s “deception of the Australian people” about why we invaded Iraq meant both Big Parties must now commit to truth in government: “It is wrong and dangerous for our elected representatives to mislead the Australian people. If we cannot trust the word of our Government, Australia cannot expect it to be trusted by others. Without that trust, the democratic structure of our society will be undermined and with it our standing and influence in the world.”
After the return of the Howard government for a third term, the Senate had held an inquiry into the children overboard affair, but Cabinet had banned all staff in ministerial offices during the 2001 campaign from giving evidence. Now in 2004 the Senate re-opened its inquiry for a day to hear from Scrafton.
Staring down Scrafton at the one-day hearing was Queensland Liberal Senator George Brandis, Howard’s attack dog throughout the Senate’s children overboard inquiry in 2002. On the first full day of the 2004 campaign
Brandis himself had been the object of a bombshell disclosure: A statutory declaration from a former senior Queensland Liberal Party official stated that Brandis had privately called his boss a ‘lying rodent’ on the children overboard scandal. He denied it, although I’ve heard George dub Howard a rodent and a liar.
Scrafton testified to the re-opened Senate inquiry that on 7 November 2001 he’d phoned the Lodge to tell Howard that the photos released by Reith to prove the children overboard claim were actually of the navy rescue the next day when the boat sank, and that everyone in Defence now believed the incident never happened. He’d also discussed the matter the next morning with Howard’s media minder, Tony O’Leary. Scrafton said he was shocked that Howard then publicly repeated the lie, and a senior Defence Force officer testified that Scrafton had confided the truth to him soon after.
In the hearing room I watched a pale, sweating Brandis hold up papers he said were the records of all the phone calls at the Lodge that night. They proved, he said, that Scrafton was lying. Brandis used untested, unsworn assertions of fact, based on ‘evidence’ he insisted was confidential, and refused to say who he had got them from or how. The ‘lying rodent’ and his advisers at the Lodge that night all refused to give evidence or sign a stat dec.
It’s very ugly up close, Howard’s government. Backbencher George, a devotee of Sir Robert Menzies, had introduced me to the ‘Forgotten People’ speeches quoted throughout this book. I felt sad for him. He is now Minister for the Arts.
‘Still Not Happy, John!’ is published by Penguin.
You can download it as an ebook by clicking here.