The Children Overboard Scandal was an Australian political controversy involving the Howard government which started a few days before the 2001 elections, influenced its results and turned into a scandal after the elections.

Philip Ruddock
Philip Ruddock

In October 2001, about a month before the Australian election, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock claimed that refugees had been throwing their children into the sea so that coastguard officers would be forced to rescue them and accept them as asylum seekers. This claim was based on an incident which occurred a day before, involving SIEV-4 (Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle). Other senior government ministers including the Prime Minister John Howard repeated this claim in days to follow.

The incident was termed as the “Children Overboard” affair by the press and it became a battleground of the 2001 election campaign. The government had applied stricter border protection measures and polls indicated that the measures had public support. Border protection became a major issue during the election campaign and the Howard government portrayed itself as “strong” on measures to prevent the entry of asylum seekers, and opponents as “weak”. On Election Day they ran full-page newspaper advertisements repeating a key line in Howard’s election launch speech. “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come … a vote for your local Liberal team member protects our borders.”

Picture of SIEV-4 sinking
SIEV-4 sinking and refugees being rescued.
John Howard
John Howard

In November 2001, the Liberal-National coalition was re-elected with an increased majority. However even after the elections the controversy didn’t die down and an inquiry was conducted into the incident by the Australian Senate Select Committee. It was found that children hadn’t been thrown overboard as claimed and that the government had known this prior to the election. Also the photographs in media that showed children being thrown into the sea were taken after SIEV-4 sank. The government was criticized for misleading the public and exploiting their fear of a wave of illegal immigrants in the country. They were also criticized for making asylum seekers look inhuman just to get votes in their favour.

Reports suggested that SIEV-4 sank due to the strain of being towed. However in 2007, Australian Prime Minister John Howard asserted that the asylum seekers “irresponsibly sank the damn boat, which put their children in the water”.

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