Children Overboard affair
The Children Overboard affair was an Australian political controversy involving public allegations by Howard government ministers in October 2001, in the lead-up to a federal election, that seafaring asylum seekers had thrown children overboard in a presumed ploy to secure rescue and passage to Australia.
The government's handling of this and other events involving unauthorised arrivals worked to its advantage. The Tampa affair had led the government to adopt stricter border protection measures to prevent unauthorised arrivals from reaching Australia by boat. Polls indicated the measures had public support. The government was able to portray itself as "strong" on border protection measures and opponents as "weak". In November 2001, the Liberal-National coalition was re-elected with an increased majority.
The Australian Senate Select Committee for an inquiry into a certain maritime incident later found that no children had been at risk of being thrown overboard and that the government had known this prior to the election. The government was criticised for misleading the public and cynically "(exploiting) voters' fears of a wave of illegal immigrants by demonising asylum-seekers".
Although reports indicated that the strain of being towed was the proximate cause of the asylum seeker boat eventually sinking, in 2007, Australian Prime Minister John Howard asserted that the asylum seekers "irresponsibly sank the damn boat, which put their children in the water".
In the early afternoon of 6 October 2001, a southbound wooden hulled “Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel” designated SIEV (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel) 4, carrying 223 asylum seekers and believed to be operated by people smugglers, was intercepted by HMAS Adelaide 100 nautical miles (190 km) north of Christmas Island and then sunk. The next day, which was the day before the issue of writs for the 2001 federal election, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock announced that passengers of SIEV 4 had threatened to throw children overboard. This claim was later repeated by other senior government ministers including Defence Minister Peter Reith and Prime Minister John Howard.
A Senate select committee inquiry, composed mainly of non-government senators, found that no children were thrown overboard from SIEV 4, that the evidence did not support the Children Overboard claim, and that the photographs[dead link] purported to show children thrown into the sea were taken after SIEV 4 sank. In response, Howard said that he acted on the intelligence he was given at the time.
A minority dissenting report, authored by government senators on the committee, described the inquiry as driven by a "misplaced sense of self-righteous outrage [felt] by the Australian Labor Party at its defeat in the 2001 federal elections". An appendix to their report documented cases where passengers aboard other SIEVs had threatened children, sabotaged their own vessels, committed self-harm and, in the case of SIEV-7 on 22 October, thrown a child overboard who was rescued by another asylum seeker.
Michael Scrafton, a former senior advisor to Peter Reith, revealed on 16 August 2004 he told John Howard on 7 November 2001 that the Children Overboard claim might be untrue. Howard said they only discussed the inconclusive nature of the video footage. In light of the new information, the Labor opposition called for further inquiry.
On 29 August, Howard announced the 2004 federal election. On 1 September, a second inquiry composed mainly of non-government senators was convened. While the final report on 9 December found Scrafton's claims to be credible, government committee members questioned the reliability of Scrafton's recollections and wrote a minority dissenting report challenging that finding.
- Kim Arlington (2004-08-24). "Children overboard the most despicable of lies: Hawke". The Age (Fairfax).
- George Megalogenis (27 February 2006). "They sank the boat, Howard says". The Australian.[dead link]
- David Marr (2006-02-28). "Truth overboard : the story that won't go away". Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax).
- Majority Report - Chapter 3 - The ‘Children Overboard’ Incident: Events and Initial Report[dead link], Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident, 23 October 2002
- Election Dates (1901 to Present) - House of Representatives, Australian Electoral Commission
- Jenny Brockie (8 November 2001). "John Howard Interview". SBS Insight. Retrieved 2007-09-20.
- Majority Report - Executive Summary[dead link], Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Inciden, 23 October 2002
- Truth overboard
- Government Members Report - Appendix I - The Pattern of Conduct[dead link], Select Committee on a certain maritime incident
- Cynthia Banham (2002-10-24). "Liberal senators slam children overboard inquiry". Sydney Morning Herald.
- Catherine McGrath (2004-08-16). "Mike Scrafton speaks live about children overboard affair". The World Today (ABC Radio).
- Greg Jennett (2004-08-16). "Howard pressured over 'children overboard' knowledge". Lateline (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
- "ALP wants new kids overboard probe". ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). 2004-08-16.
- Media Release[dead link], Senate Select Committee on the Scrafton Evidence, 2004-08-31
- AAP (2004-09-01). "Children overboard to dominate campaign". The Age (Fairfax).
- Senate Select Committee on the Scrafton Evidence[dead link], 9 December 2004
- Alexandra Kirk (2004-12-09). "Senate inquiry finds Scrafton's children overboard evidence credible". The World Today (Australian Broadcasting Corporation Local Radio).
- "Government Senators' Report". Senate Select Committee on the Scrafton Evidence. 2004-12-09.[dead link]
- Australian Senate - Select Committee for an inquiry into A Certain Maritime Incident
- Main report of the Australian Senate select committee into A Certain Maritime Incident PDF
- About 45 leaked Australian NAVY photographs of the kids overboard, being rescued by the sailors
- Media releases by John Howard on the Scrafton claims[dead link]
- Truth Overboard — political website maintained by the Australian Labor Party.
- Senate Select Committee on the Scrafton Evidence[dead link]
- "Scrafton and Howard locked in dispute over children overboard" (transcript), by Matt Brown: The World Today (ABC Local Radio), 1 September 2004.
- "Indifference can be dangerous", by Shaun Carney: Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 2002.