Elementary my Dear Watson

Paul Watson sometimes irritates me intensely (mostly in his repetitive and silly GenX whinges), but he’s also frequently an incisive observer. Paul’s take on the current furore over whether/when the Howard government knew about allegations of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, and whether public servants told Ministers about it (and if not why not), is succinct and spot-on:

“Children Overboard – the sequel” this ain’t.

“Children overboard” and (arguably) the failure of various intelligence agencies to advise Ministers about suspect information on Iraq’s WMD capabilities are examples of a disturbing trend in Australian political life. It seems that the Public Service, military and intelligence agencies are now so compromised and politicised that they habitually decline to tell Ministers about things they believe the Minister doesn’t want to know. Howard and Ruddock didn’t want to know that children hadn’t actually been thrown overboard, and public servants knew that very well. The Coalition was running for re-election on a platform consisting in significant part of vilifying asylum seekers, and public servants didn’t need a crystal ball to appreciate that undermining the government’s propaganda by highlighting inconvenient facts was unlikely to be a good career move. Similarly with Iraq WMD intelligence: Howard was determined to join Bush’s Coalition of the Willing, and obviously didn’t want to know anything about WMD that would make his decision more difficult to sell to the Australian public.

However, the Abu Ghraib torture saga is in a completely different category. Neither Howard nor any Minister had nailed their colours to the mast in a way that would have made revelation of torture stories an embarrassment for them. Nor is it alleged that Australians were in any way involved in the mistreatment of prisoners themselves. Moreover, allegations of prisoner mistreatment have been on the public record for a long time, whether or not they were brought to Howard’s attention. They were simply ignored by just about everyone, including the media, until lurid photographs became available. Only then did the issue hit the public and media radar screen. Even that pompous prat David Marr agrees:

There’s no escaping the conclusion that the Australian media was simply not interested in this story. The prosecutions at Abu Ghraib were ignored – but for a couple of pars buried one day in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In those circumstances, there’s no reason to suspect that public servants might have deliberately withheld information about Abu Ghraib from Ministers, because there was no reason to suspect that Ministers would be embarrassed, discomforted or inconvenienced by possession of that sort of knowledge. Almost certainly, General Cosgrove and other senior military and Defence Department personnel failed to pass on on or highlight the information for exactly the same reason the media ignored it: it was merely one issue among a multitude, and not apparently terribly important from an Australian perspective until the photographs entered the public arena.

I’m not suggesting that mistreatment of prisoners is unimportant; simply that the current ALP and media attempts to turn the story into another “children overboard” Ministerial lying/dissembling saga is just a beat-up. I have no doubt that Australia’s public sector has been politicised and compromised to a dangerous extent by successive governments both Labor and Coalition, but Abu Ghraib isn’t an example of it.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Ken, you and Watson have missed the point.

Australia is one of the occupying powers in Iraq and under the Geneva treaty we have very specific legal obligations vis a vis our treatment of prisoners [and it is “our” treatment, since we are one of the occupying powers, regardless of whether Australians are actually running the prisons].

Whether or not it was politically terribly important, legally it was terribly important, and the government should have been warned and advised about what was going on and what to do about it . This is what public servants are paid to do.

It beggars belief that the government’s defence advisors were ignorant about the responsiblities incurred by an occupying power. If the public servants decided that this matter was none of the government’s concern, then not only are they politicised, then, much worse, they are incompetent.

Jim Birch
Jim Birch
2022 years ago

Not to mention the fact that Abu Ghraib has been a foreign policy disaster of immense proportions, with a significant chance of producing Australian deaths in acts of retribution. This alone compels top-level attention.

The fact that this was considered insufficiently important to report is attributable to collective guilt over the entire obscene process that we have been hooked into, rather than the work levels of public servants.

2022 years ago

I agree with you (and Paul) that Australia is largely irrelevant to Abu Ghraib, and Howard bears no responsibility for it.

But it seems awfully convenient that, anytime Howard comes under fire, it’s the fault of people who were supposed to advise him. True, I can only specifically remember three cases — children overboard, Trish Draper and this — but I’m pretty sure there’s been more over the last four years or so. Is the public service that far gone? What of Peter Reith and Eric Abetz? Surely Howard can’t always be the innocent victim of those who, bafflingly, decide to withold information from him?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago


Of course Howard isn’t “innocent” on this, any more than Hawke was before him. Politicising the public service was/is a quite deliberate strategy. Howard has further perfected it by slecting politicised departmental heads who are themselves “headkickers” (Max the Axe was the quintessential case), whose job is to convey to their minions that their job is to make sure the Minister isn’t embarrassed by inconvenient knowledge or advice. Public servants who ignore this and act in the best tradition of the old impartial Westminster public service are punished for it (although not immediately or overtly), whereas those who neglect to inform the Minister about things he doesn’t want to know are conspicuously not punished at the time, and rewarded quietly later. None of this is accidental.

2022 years ago

I can’t follow your or Paul’s argument at all here. Supposing Howard had received reports last year. Presumably he would have said nothing about them, and would now be in (worse) trouble as a result.

So, those who made sure not to tell him covered him exactly as in children overboard. What’s the difference?

Paul Watson
2022 years ago

John, I suspect that we are just not ever going to see eye to eye over this one. However, I’ll have one last try.

“Abu Ghraib – the story” was a media avalanche that broke with those photos. You seem to be confusing the momentum of this avalanche with the plain facts behind the story, which are: (i) there was torture between about May and Nov 2003, in which (ii) Australians were loosely (i.e. administratively, not directly) involved in, and that (iii) pre-04/04, no one, in Australia or in the US, particularly cared to follow-up reports of torture.

In summary, you are projecting, backwards-in-time, the post-photo (04/04) momentum onto the earlier, “sleeping” story. While in politics, *any* dig is usually a good dig, on this one it seems that the more the Left cries “cover-up”, the higher PM Howard’s approval rating goes (see: http://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/001954.html )

In today’s Oz is this short letter:

There are things we know and there are things we know you know. There are things we know we don’t want to know and things we don’t want you to know we know. We have people who know what we don’t want to know and ensure that we don’t know.

– Jim Astbury
Hovea, WA

While I’m not quite sure whether this means Jim is taking my or your line on Abu Ghraib, I *do* know this:

The people know that PM John Howard knows that they don’t want to know yesterday’s news.

(And the Left ignores this at its peril)

2022 years ago

In past decades, it tended to be the Right who were sickeningly ‘certain’ that truth and justice were confined to their ranks, and they tailored their ‘thinking’ accordingly. Most of the rabid nutters were found on that side of the spectrum also.
how times have changed yet the the relevant patterns of behaviour have somehow continued to prosper, even if under a different set of banners.