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A horribly sordid affair in the recent history of Australian politics. It relates to the stream of refugees who try to gain entry to Australia by paying shonky people large sums of money (about US$5000) to catch barely-seaworthy boats from Indonesia to the edges of Australia, where they are told by the shonky dealers that they can become Australian citizens.

At the same time, a conservative government (which, confusingly in Autralia is known as the Liberal party) led by John Howard, was facing reelection, almost immediately after September 11. They were using wedge politics, essentially trying to play on people's fears post-September 11, and particularly, they were trying to demonize these refugees. "Border protection" became the election issue, and even the left-leaning party (the Australian Labor Party or ALP) ended up pretty much agreeing with the government on this particular issue.

The story goes something like this: early October 2001, the Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock claims that certain of the above refugees threatened to throw their children overboard (putting their lives at risk) unless they obtained admission to Australia. Rather ambiguous photos were presented to the media two weeks before the election. Just three days before the election, Ruddock again raised the issue, when it seemed the ALP had things moving in its direction.

John Howard and his party romped home to a massive election win, in part at least due to the whole business with the children overboard.

The problem was that the entire incident was a complete fabrication from beginning to end, based on a rumour that got out of hand. The main instigator was Peter Reith, generally regarded as one of the nastiest people at the time in Australian politics, who was also a junior minister at the time.

Very soon after the story hit the media, officers from the Australian Navy contacted the government telling them that there was no evidence to support the claims. These communications were never disclosed, and the goverment continued to push the story for the next two weeks until the election. It was only after the election that the navy people went public with their contradictions to the government.

The real moral/ethical issue is this: the Howard government, was, at least in part, elected on false pretences and deceitful information. What does that imply for the government's sovereignty or mandate?

Subsequently, a Royal Commission was held into, as it was called, "A Certain Maritime Incident". The government tried to sabotage proceedings, by, for example, prohibiting certain public servants from being subpoenad. Nevertheless, it was found that the claims were totally false and misleading, and Peter Reith was found to have acted improperly, but was not subsequently charged.

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