Children Overboard affair

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The Children Overboard affair was an Australian political controversy involving public allegations by Howard government ministers in the lead-up to the 2001 federal election, that seafaring asylum seekers had thrown children overboard in a presumed ploy to secure rescue and passage on 7 October 2001.

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 its 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".[1][2]

Although reports indicated that the strain of being towed was the proximate cause of the asylum seeker boat eventually sinking,[3] Australian Prime Minister John Howard asserted that the asylum seekers "irresponsibly sank the damn boat, which put their children in the water".[2]


In the early afternoon of 6 October 2001, HMAS Adelaide intercepted a southbound wooden-hulled vessel, designated SIEV 4 (Suspected Irregular Entry Vessel), carrying 223 passengers and crew, 100 nautical miles (190 km) north of Christmas Island, and the vessel then sank.[4] The next day, which was the day before the issue of writs for the 2001 federal election,[5] 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 Howard.[6][7]

Senate inquiry[edit]

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[8] purported to show children thrown into the sea were taken after SIEV 4 sank.[7] 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.[9][10]

Scrafton revelations[edit]

Michael Scrafton, a former senior advisor to Peter Reith, revealed on 16 August 2004 that he told Howard on 7 November 2001 that the Children Overboard claim might be untrue.[11] Howard said that they only discussed the inconclusive nature of the video footage.[12] In light of the new information, the Labor opposition called for further inquiry.[13]

On 29 August, Howard announced the 2004 federal election. On 1 September, a second inquiry composed mainly of non-government senators was convened.[14][15] While the final report on 9 December found Scrafton's claims to be credible,[16][17] government committee members questioned the reliability of Scrafton's recollections and wrote a minority dissenting report challenging that finding.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kim Arlington (24 August 2004). "Children overboard the most despicable of lies: Hawke". The Age. Fairfax.
  2. ^ a b George Megalogenis (27 February 2006). "They sank the boat, Howard says". The Australian. Archived from the original on 13 March 2006.
  3. ^ David Marr (28 February 2006). "Truth overboard : the story that won't go away". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax.
  4. ^ a b Majority Report – Chapter 3 – The 'Children Overboard' Incident: Events and Initial Report, Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident, 23 October 2002 Archived 17 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Election Dates (1901 to Present) – House of Representatives, Australian Electoral Commission
  6. ^ Jenny Brockie (8 November 2001). "John Howard Interview". Insight. SBS. Archived from the original on 30 August 2007. Retrieved 20 September 2007.
  7. ^ a b "Majority Report – Executive Summary, Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident". Parliament of Australia. 23 October 2002. Archived from the original on 12 January 2011. Retrieved 17 January 2014.
  8. ^ Truth overboard Archived 28 January 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ "Government Members Report – Appendix I – The Pattern of Conduct, Select Committee on a certain maritime incident". Parliament of Australia. 2002. Archived from the original on 16 January 2014. Retrieved 17 January 2014.
  10. ^ Cynthia Banham (24 October 2002). "Liberal senators slam children overboard inquiry". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  11. ^ Catherine McGrath (16 August 2004). "Mike Scrafton speaks live about children overboard affair". The World Today. ABC Radio.
  12. ^ Greg Jennett (16 August 2004). "Howard pressured over 'children overboard' knowledge". Lateline. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
  13. ^ "ALP wants new kids overboard probe". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 16 August 2004.
  14. ^ Media Release, Senate Select Committee on the Scrafton Evidence, 31 August 2004 Archived 18 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ AAP (1 September 2004). "Children overboard to dominate campaign". The Age. Fairfax.
  16. ^ Senate Select Committee on the Scrafton Evidence, 9 December 2004 Archived 10 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ Alexandra Kirk (9 December 2004). "Senate inquiry finds Scrafton's children overboard evidence credible". The World Today. Australian Broadcasting Corporation Local Radio.
  18. ^ "Government Senators' Report". Senate Select Committee on the Scrafton Evidence. 9 December 2004. Archived from the original on 14 July 2007.

External links[edit]