John Howard's "forbidden" kids overboard photos
On 23 July 2003, more than one-and-a-half year after the sinking of 'SIEV 4', we received a set of electronic photos in the mail.
The photo's were sent 'anonymously and clandestinely': They were a 'government leak'. The boat SIEV 4 was better known as The Olong.
The sinking of The Olong and the rescue of its survivors by the crew of HMAS Adelaide took place on October 8 2001.
On this page we share all the 'leaked' NAVY photos. And because we told the newspapers about them, the resulting news reports are also reprinted on this page. Click on the links below to jump down to the sections on this page!
Below are the photos - most of them are photos we were not allowed to see, in keeping with the brief issued by Operation Relex' Canberra Command Centre - at The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet's office - which stipulated explicitly to 'not humanise the asylum seekers'.
The photos show gratefulness. They show fathers who are tired, but moved. They show mothers who smile, in deep love for their children, and thankfulness for the rescue by HMS Adelaide. Forgotten are the rounds of machine gun fire, the cannon shots, aimed over the bow of the dilapidated boat. It's time for milk, for warm blankets, for NAVY issue bath towels, and for the boys - feeling good in NAVY overalls.
The pictures were presumably taken by a naval officer aboard HMS Adelaide. Once those pictures are downloaded on a computer, they have rather amorphous names, more like serial numbers. It is interesting to note the names (presumably also chosen by that naval officer) - so we printed them under the photos in the table below.
If we go by the names of the pictures, we can even get a glimpse of the thoughts of that naval officer. I left the more 'telling' names of the images intact, even though they're cumbersome from a web designer's point of view.
There is a photo of one of the naval officer's colleagues, swimming towards HMS Adelaide, ahead of a few people. Our cameraman names the photo 'Dogs and his family', in typical RAN dry wit. One of the earlier photos, still showing The Olong half afloat, carries the title 'Don't try this at home'. Another one 'I left my bag behind'. But the names of the photos, taken of the families and the children, can hardly disguise that they were given by our naval cameraman with a sense of pride in a job well done, and almost a sense of relief - certainly not according to the commands given to 'not humanise the asylum seekers'.
The photos were forwarded to us just a few hours after Senator John Faulkner gave a speech at the Fabian Society in Melbourne. It was a speech about the "CMI Inquiry", a Senate Inquiry into 'a Certain Maritime Incident', more popularly known as the 'Children Overboard Inquiry', the Kids Overboard Inquiry, or the Unthrown Kids Inquiry.
23 July 2003: John Faulkner, The Aftermath of the CMI Inquiry - "John Howard indicated that he was prepared to spend whatever money it took to deter boatpeople from arriving on the Australian mainland. But have there been other costs? What has been the cost of the Howard Government's disruption programme in Indonesia - not just the financial cost? I intend to keep asking questions until I find out. I intend to keep pressing for an independent judicial inquiry into these very serious matters."
Within hours, Margo Kingston published the speech in her Web Diary section of The Sydney Morning Herald.
Here is the beginning of Faulkner's speech.
"In February 2002 the Labor Party, with the agreement of the minor parties in the Senate, established a Senate Select Committee to examine fully the children overboard incident. We wanted this inquiry, called the Certain Maritime Incident Committee or CMI Committee, to uncover the truth about the children overboard lie - the how, when and why of the Government's deceit."
"While the CMI Committee enabled us to investigate the children overboard lie, it also allowed us to scrutinise many aspects of the Howard Government's asylum seeker policy."
"Today, because of the work of the CMI Committee - especially the work of my colleagues Jacinta Collins and Peter Cook, we know a great deal more about the Government's response to asylum seekers than otherwise would be the case. David Marr, who co-authored Dark Victory, believes that if it were not for the CMI Committee most of this information would not have been revealed to public scrutiny until 30 years after the event. The exhaustive cross-examination of witnesses would not have taken place."
"The response to boat people or asylum seekers was the main focus of the Howard Government in the lead up to the last federal election. The Government's strategy was based on politicising the asylum seeker issue for electoral advantage. It wasn't just the Tampa episode, or the bald faced lies about children being thrown overboard, it was a systematic campaign to engender public fear about asylum seekers and the need to protect our borders against them at all costs."
Click on the thumbnails to open a large size photo in a new browser window. NOTE 13 October 2003: After repeated attempts to contact the owner of www.truthoverboard.com we added the photographs from this website as well. This website has been in existence since about April 2002, and reportedly it is owned by the National Labor Party Secretariat.
Linda Tenenbaum writes in 2002:
The Senate inquiry into "A Certain Maritime Incident" began hearings nearly four months ago after the parliamentary opposition parties voted to investigate government lies about another asylum-seeker incident that occurred during last year's election campaign - the so-called "children overboard" affair.
In early October, government ministers, on the advice of Howard's People Smuggling Taskforce (PST) - a handpicked committee of top public servants and defence personnel - circulated false claims that refugees on a boat bound for Australia had thrown young children overboard, endangering their lives, in order to force navy ships patrolling the area to rescue them and take them to Australian territory. The refugee boat was code-named SIEV 4 (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel Number 4).
"SIEV 4 had been intercepted by HMAS Adelaide on the evening of October 6 just inside Australia's contiguous zone. When the vessel failed to respond to demands to turn back to Indonesia, the Adelaide fired several rounds of cannon and machine-gun fire at it, some at extremely close range.
At least one parent held a child up high - apparently fearful (with good reason) that the boat was about to be attacked - to indicate that children were on board. This took place in the early hours of October 7. Not long after, heavily armed military personnel boarded SIEV 4.
Under control of the Adelaide's crew, SIEV 4 was steered back into international waters and warned not to re-enter Australia's contiguous zone. After the boarding party left, the boat's engine was apparently disabled by passengers in a final, desperate attempt to pressure the Adelaide into picking them up. In line with its obligations under the International Law of the Sea, the Adelaide responded to SIEV 4's distress signal and took the boat in tow. When SIEV 4 sank the next day, October 8, the Adelaide's crew jumped into the water and rescued all the passengers.
Sydney Morning Herald
By Nick Leys
Thursday, November 8, 2001
The Royal Australian Navy is facing a crisis in its ranks as a result of its activities in dealing with asylum seekers, according to a defence policy analyst.
The executive director of the Australian Defence Association, Michael O'Connor, told the Herald the service stood to lose many members who had become demoralised.
"I think early resignations from sailors is a likely outcome from these actions," he said. "It goes against their sense of humanity."
Mr O'Connor's comments are in response to allegations made by a senior Navy consultant psychiatrist, Duncan Wallace, who in a letter to newspapers described the actions as "morally wrong and despicable".
It is still unclear what action the Navy may take against Dr Wallace - a psychiatrist at Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital who this week returned from 30 days aboard HMAS Arunta, where he experienced the situation with the boat people first hand.
A Navy spokesman said the matter was being investigated to determine if Dr Wallace had breached rules on commenting to the media.
Those instructions state that personnel are not to make comments "which could place in doubt their political impartiality or acceptance of the obligation to implement the policy of the elected government".
Mr O'Connor said Dr Wallace could faced a court-martial, although that could embarrass the Navy.
"He could insist on his own court-martial, which would air his allegations and call witnesses to verify them. That would be very damaging for the Navy - but more so for the Government."
In his letter, Dr Wallace questioned the psychological impact on Navy members of repelling boat people.
He said the Navy "should not be asked to perform these reprehensible duties".
Mr O'Connor said: "The young guys will say 'this is not why we joined the Navy' - at a time when the Navy is experiencing a critical employment shortage."
Green Left Weekly
November 14, 2001
BY SARAH STEPHEN
In the days before the November 10 federal election, the Australian government's punitive policy toward asylum seekers began to backfire on the Coalition government. A wave of former prime ministers, former Labor and Liberal cabinet ministers, top public servants, former diplomats, academics and church leaders all spoke out against the government's treatment of refugees. Then a navy spokesperson denied that the navy had advised Prime Minister John Howard's government that refugees had thrown children into the sea - a claim that Howard has made a centrepiece of his campaign to demonise asylum seekers.
On October 6, the HMAS Adelaide intercepted a boat with 187 Iraqi asylum seekers on board. A written warning was thrown aboard the boat. When it was ignored, warning shots were fired to deter the boat from continuing toward Australia. Navy personnel boarded the boat to turn it around.
According to immigration minister Philip Ruddock, the navy told the government that some asylum seekers then threw their children, wearing life jackets, into the water.
Howard and Labor leader Kim Beazley did not ask to see the evidence before they rushed to condemn the refugees. Neither, for that matter, did the mainstream media.
Howard and his ministers repeatedly made use of the allegations to fuel the government's campaign to demonise asylum seekers trying to reach Australia. Howard accused refugees of manipulating Australia's compassion and forcing the navy to rescue them.
"I can't comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard", said Howard.
"I regard these as some of the most disturbing practices I've come across in the time I've been involved in public life", said Ruddock.
After photos were released that only showed asylum seekers in the water, questions were raised about the evidence for the allegations. Referring to a navy video, defence minister Peter Reith on October 10 stated that "someone has looked at it and it is an absolute fact, the children were thrown into the water".
However, on November 7 the Australian reported that two Christmas Island residents had been told by two sailors from the HMAS Adelaide that the government's claims were untrue. One sailor had said: "Whatever you hear, the asylum seekers did not throw their children overboard.- A resident said he was told the boat was already sinking and "that was the reason they were in the water".
Howard and Reith dismissed the reports but pressure mounted for the navy video footage to be released.
When the footage was made public on November 8, it did not show any children being thrown overboard. It showed a number of adult asylum seekers jumping in. It also revealed that the boat was sinking, according to former navy captain interviewed by the November 9 Australian.
It has since been revealed that the officer in charge of the navy boarding crew judged that the fishing boat was in danger of sinking and ordered the asylum seekers to leave the boat. Sailors report that people - adults and children - jumped into the water and swam toward a life raft. Nobody was thrown.
On November 8, navy chief vice-admiral David Shackleton made a shock announcement: "The navy had never advised defence minister Peter Reith that there were children thrown overboard ... The navy's advice to the minister was that a child ... had been held over a top railing of the boat with intent to throw the child overboard. Our advice was that there were people being threatened to be thrown in the water and I don't know what happened to the message after that."
That statement revealed Reith and Howard to be liars. A few hours later, Shackleton added that Reith had been advised by the defence department that it "believed" children had been thrown overboard.
The claim that asylum seekers even threatened to throw a child overboard has also been challenged. A petty officer who was on board the HMAS Adelaide during the incident explained to the November 9 Australian why the video showed someone holding up a child: "They were holding them up to show we have small children on board."
Risking his career in the Naval Reserve, Commander Dr Duncan Wallace spoke out against the government's use of the navy to deter asylum seekers.
The November 7 Sydney Morning Herald reported that Wallace, who recently spent 30 days on the HMAS Arunta, said in a letter: "These actions are ineffective in deterring people in coming to Australia and merely serve to harass, frighten and demoralise people who are already weak, vulnerable and desperate... It is my expert opinion, as a senior consultant psychiatrist to the Royal Australian Navy, that they are highly likely to be harmful to the psychological health and moral development of all [RAN] members involved... Nearly everyone I spoke to that was involved in these operations knew that what they were doing was wrong."
Wallace has been supported by a former top military officer, Brigadier Adrian D'Hage, who told the November 7 Herald that there was deep unhappiness and falling morale in the defence force at the role it had been forced to play in the boat people issue.
Wallace's letter continues: "I believe that how we deal with the boat people is the greatest moral question that has faced Australia in a generation. The hard-hearted who speak loudly about the need for stern, deterrent actions to solve this problem have not seen the faces of the boat people in their miserable conditions, imploring us for help."
The list of public figures who are criticising the bipartisan approach to asylum seekers is steadily increasing.
Ian McPhee, a former immigration minister in the Coalition government led by Malcolm Fraser, described Howard as "a throwback we must throw out." He told the November 7 7.30 Report that "my reaction to the Liberal Party applauding Philip Ruddock was one of horror. It shows you there's not one liberal left in the Liberal Party." Fraser has also criticised Howard's refugee policy in harsh terms.
John Hewson, a former Liberal Party leader, commented that, "To an Asian, our solution to the Tampa reeks of racism. It further feeds a suspicion that still persists in Asia that we have never abandoned the White Australia Policy".
"This is not strong leadership, to attack vulnerable, outcast, weak people, it is cowardice", said John Menadue, former head of the immigration department under the Whitlam and Fraser governments.
Other recent critics include High Court justice Ronald Wilson, Leighton Holdings chief executive Wal King and former governor-general Sir William Deane.
Even the notoriously right-wing John Singleton, businessperson and former ALP ad producer, felt compelled to condemn policies that are "an immoral, unprincipled electoral strategy by both parties... We're one of the biggest, emptiest, luckiest nations in the world, and somehow we have turned our back on the world we came from."
Greg Sheridan, writing in the November 8 Australian, summed up the mood among many conservatives: "You have a right to determine who comes into your home. But if there's a car accident in your street in which the husband is killed and the wife, bleeding and injured, brings her three small daughters to your front door, in need of rudimentary but urgent medical attention and the use of a phone, what is your response? Legally you're entitled to refuse her entry, no doubt. Morally, to do so would be evil, even grotesque."
Sheridan drew attention to the sharp criticism from former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Richard Woolcott, who accused Howard of looking at foreign policy only through a narrow, short-term, domestic prism and ignoring the "national interest".
Sheridan added the example of three Australian National University professors who had "condemned Howard's foreign policy and said our position in the region was the weakest it has been in a generation".
"The revolt this week of the foreign policy professionals should be of the highest concern to the government, though doubtless it will dismiss them as members of the elite. In fact, these people are not chardonnay socialists or Balmain basketweavers. They are dedicated professionals, outraged at the huge damage to our national interests the policy is doing and also at its moral perversity."
Sheridan expresses a genuine concern among Australia's ruling capitalist class that the thrust of the Coalition's policy is doing substantial damage to Australian business prospects in the Asia-Pacific region.
By Liza Kappelle
September 5 2002
Three Indonesians were jailed yesterday for five years for smuggling to Australia the 219 asylum seekers at the centre of the children-overboard affair.
Western Australian District Court judge Roger Macknay sentenced 19-year-old cousins Jacky Lerebulan and Geri Bebri Iraratu and 33-year-old Ganjang to the mandatory minimum term of five years with a three-year non-parole period.
However, in a plea that lawyers described as unprecedented, Judge Macknay suggested that Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock deport the cousins before the end of their non-parole terms.
He indicated the trio were probably duped by people-smuggling operators who knew Australia's laws on people smuggling had been toughened.
Judge Macknay said he accepted the seriousness of the offence and the need for deterrence. But he called on Mr Ruddock to deport the younger men early because of their ages and the minor roles they played.
The trio were arrested with 219 Iraqi asylum seekers after being rescued by HMAS Adelaide when the passengers scuttled their fishing vessel during a stand-off with the navy on October 7 and 8 last year.
The Federal Government later falsely accused the asylum seekers of throwing children overboard. The incident was the subject of a Senate inquiry.
The Weekend Australian
26-27 July 2003
page 6 - The Nation
by Victoria Laurie
PHOTOGRAPHS of happy children being cuddled and cared for by relieved asylum-seeker parents have emerged, more than 18 months after the same parents were wrongly accused of throwing their children overboard.
Six [sic] photographs, posted on the internet yesterday, show tired but attentive parents on the deck of HMAS Adelaide soon after they were rescued in October 2001 by navy personnel after their vessel, carrying 187 people, sank off the Australian coast. The Opposition said yesterday the release of the photographs before the election could have changed public attitudes to asylum seekers. Labor Senator John Faulkner, who sat on the children overboard Senate inquiry, said he had no doubt that if the photos had been released before the election, "there would have been much greater sympathy towards asylum seekers".
He accused the government of deliberately preventing the Defence Department from releasing the images.
"The government was intent on perpetuating the myth, for political advantage, that asylum seekers were callous and cruel towards their kids," he said.
The photographs show mothers in headscarves and their husbands holding babies and sitting in family groups with young children draped in towels and drinking glasses of milk supplied by naval officers.
The asylum-seekers became a focal point in the 2001 election campaign when pictures of children allegedly thrown in the water by their parents, were released days before the federal poll.
At the time, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock described the refugees' actions as a disturbing and premeditated act. John Howard said they were "a sorry reflection on their attitudes of mind."
The Australian's Nathalie O'Brien broke the story that the children overboard incident never happened.
The story days before the election forced the governmentt release video of the episode and later sparked a Senate inquiry.
The new softer images of the asylum-seekers were posted on a website by West Australian refugee advocate Jack Smit, who said he had received them from an anonymous source.
He claimed the images had been withheld from the public to dehumanise the asylum-seekers, despite the release of the know well-known digital photographs - apparently taken at the same time by a navy officer - showing children in the water. "This is the same camera, the same (series of) pictures that went to John Howard, so why didn't they show the other ones to Australians?" Mr Smit said.
April 1 2002
By Robert Manne
The "children overboard" affair is the most perilous political problem that has faced the Howard Government since it was first elected in March, 1996. If it can be proved that the Prime Minister deliberately misled the people or the parliament over this matter, before or after the last election, I do not see how John Howard can have any alternative but to resign.
Last week the Senate committee investigating what is coyly described as a "certain maritime incident" convened. Immediately, the way in which the Howard Government intends to defend itself became clear. The fundamental line of defence will be the government's refusal to allow the ministerial advisers most deeply implicated in the affair to give evidence before the inquiry. Success or failure here will depend on whether or not the Crean opposition has the courage to risk future embarrassment to a Labor administration by supporting the issue of subpoenas to the former minister for defence, Peter Reith, and the key ministerial advisers - Ross Hampton, Mike Scrafton and Miles Jordana.
Before this question is resolved politically, however, the government will attempt to turn public attention away from the charge of its having lied to the people by mounting at the inquiry, with the support of its powerful supporters on talkback radio and in the tabloid press, a diversionary anti-refugee vilification campaign.
We saw last week how this was to be achieved when the key Howard Government representative on the inquiry, Senator George Brandis, arrived on Monday armed with a minute prepared by Air Vice-Marshal Titheridge of Strategic Command. Titheridge had been instructed by the new Defence Minister, Senator Hill, to peruse the intelligence data provided by the ships involved in the post-Tampa interceptions of refugee boats, in search for any information implicating asylum seekers in child abuse.
After sifting through hundreds of pages of raw intelligence, what Titheridge uncovered were a few uncorroborated instances where an asylum seeker was said to have threatened to throw a child overboard; one so far undocumented instance where a refugee was reported to have tried to strangle a child; one incident where a boat had been sunk by refugees, leaving all its passengers, including 33 children, in the water; and one case where, it was claimed, a child had been dropped into the sea by its mother.
To me at least, the stories glimpsed in the Titheridge minute, in so far as they can be relied upon, speak of abject human misery, of refugees on the edge of madness after years of privation and fear, driven to acts of savage desperation in the hope of igniting compassion in the hearts of those with the capacity to save them.
To Senator Brandis, the stories contained in the Titheridge minute speak, rather differently, of pure human malevolence, of illegal immigrants mounting what he described as a "concerted campaign" of "moral blackmail" involving both systematic "child abuse" and cynical exploitation of Australians' instinctive "generosity".
At the Senate inquiry last week Brandis put his case to the Chief of the Navy, Vice-Admiral Shackleton. As Shackleton had no detailed knowledge of any of the interception operations he could do little more, as a witness, than confirm that Brandis was reading from the Titheridge minute accurately. Nonetheless, on occasions he showed some minor uneasiness with the Brandis line. The senator sought confirmation of the devastating impact on the morale of the navy of the vile behaviour of the refugees. The vice-admiral reminded him that the refugees were, actually, in rather "difficult circumstances themselves".
Brandis asked Shackleton to comment on a supposedly terrible case of a refugee threatening to throw a child overboard if he was refused permission to cook his own food. "They must like their own cooking," was the vice-admiral's response. Shackleton's scepticism and humour did not rub off on the senator. For him, the "peculiar evil" of the refugees was demonstrated by their willingness to inflict harm on their children while looking after themselves.
So far as I am aware, Senator Brandis is a politician who lives a life of comfort and security. He represents, moreover, a government that is quite untroubled about imprisoning young children for months or years in desert camps and behind barbed wire. With the defamation last week of some of the most desperate people on earth as cold-blooded child abusers, Australian politics arrived at the lowest moral point that it has, in my experience, ever reached.
Following the departure of Shackleton, Commander Banks, the captain of the ship involved in the "children overboard" affair, was called. Not unexpectedly, Banks told the Senate inquiry that no child had been thrown overboard. He explained that the incident which had led to the original misunderstanding - of a child being held over a handrail - had seemed to him both at the time and subsequently of no great significance in the larger scheme of things. Most importantly of all, he told for the first time the story of what had actually taken place in the encounter between HMAS Adelaide and the refugee boat known officially as SIEV-4.
As Commander of the Adelaide it was Banks' mission to force SIEV-4 back to Indonesia. In this task he failed. After scenes of great chaos the refugees managed to disable their boat's engine. Eventually Banks received orders from the Prime Minister to take SIEV-4 under tow. On board the refugee boat, the atmosphere now became quite calm.
A day later, while still in tow, SIEV-4 began to sink very rapidly. Banks put life rafts into the water. He was impressed by the orderliness of the refugees during the rescue. He was moved by the great concern the refugees showed for a baby, who was placed by them very gently on to one of the rafts. Most of all he was delighted by how swiftly, as the reality of the refugees' plight became clear, the initial racism that had been expressed by his crew as the Adelaide approached SIEV-4 was transformed into warmth, courtesy and attentive care.
The Iraqi refugees were, too, clearly touched by the kindness shown them. As they disembarked from the Adelaide at Christmas Island there was, as Banks put it, "cheering, clapping and handshaking".
In their ignorance, the refugees obviously believed that in landing on Australian soil their ordeal was at an end. Little did they know that in a fortnight they would be dispatched to a tropical prison being prepared for them on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
For the pitiful cargo of SIEV-4 the compassion displayed by the crew of the Adelaide, when the "unauthorised arrivals" suddenly became human beings of flesh and blood, would offer only a momentary reprieve from the ocean of inhumanity in which they were destined shortly, once again, to drown. The true story of a "certain maritime incident" and its aftermath is one that ought to put Senator Brandis and his political masters to shame.
Robert Manne is associate professor of politics at La Trobe University. His column appears fortnightly on this page. His e-mail address is r.manne(at)latrobe.edu.au