Howard unbowed over false claim on refugees

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The Independent Online

John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, and senior colleagues refused to apologise yesterday for misleading the public during last year's election campaign by falsely claiming that a boatload of asylum-seekers threw their children into the ocean.

The claims were used to support the government's hardline stance on refugees, which included the use of naval warships to turn away boat people before they reached Australia. The tough policy was widely credited with securing Mr Howard's re-election last November.

An inquiry into the allegations found that countless defence officials and civil servants knew within days that they had no basis in fact. Mr Howard and the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, say they were never told. Peter Reith, who was Defence Minister, has since retired.

The conflicting versions of events arise from an incident last October when a naval ship, HMAS Adelaide, confronted a fishing boat carrying asylum-seekers in the Indian Ocean. The government claimed children were thrown into the sea after Adelaide fired across the vessel's bows and dispatched an armed boarding party.

Asked for evidence, it released photographs showing children in the water. But – as Mr Reith was swiftly told by the navy – the pictures were taken the following day, when passengers were being rescued after the fishing boat sank.

The public swung decisively behind the previously unpopular Mr Howard after he refused to allow 434 Afghan asylum-seekers rescued from a sinking boat by the Norwegian freighter Tampa to land on Christmas Island.

Mr Howard defended his actions yesterday. "If I in good faith use information and I subsequently find that that information was not correct, I would express a regret that that has occurred, but I haven't acted in bad faith," he said. Mr Ruddock said he regretted "any action that misleads people" but added: "I don't apologise in relation to matters where I dealt with the information I had honourably and truthfully."

* The Queen's representative in Australia, Dr Peter Hollingworth, the Governor General, will apologise on television today for failing to help victims of child abuse. Dr Hollingworth will admit in a documentary for the ABC network that he failed to protect children who were sexually assaulted by priests and other church members while he was the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane in the 1990s. Dr Hollingworth has denied previous accusations that he covered up sex abuse by the clergy.