Peter Reith, the disgraced former Howard government minister at the centre of the 2001 Children Overboard scandal has died overnight, aged 72.
Reith suffered from ill health for some years, abandoning a tilt at the Liberal Party presidency in 2017 after being hospitalised for suspect bleeding on the brain.
Reith was first elected to the seat of Flinders, in the outer suburbs of Melbourne at a by-election in 1982. He lost the seat at the general election the following year, but won it back and held it until 2001, when he retired.
Reith also served as deputy leader of the Liberal Party from April 1990 to March 1993, serving under John Hewson.
Following the Coalition’s election victory in 1996, Reith served as a member of John Howard’s cabinet in several senior portfolios, including a stint as Minister for Industrial Relations. During that service, Reith helped spearhead one of the nation’s largest ever industrial relations disputes, after stevedoring company Patrick sacked its entire union workforce, and replaced it with non-union workers.
In 2000, Reith was at the centre of the Telecard scandal, after it emerged his son, Paul, had racked up a $50,000 bill on Reith’s parliamentary phone card, after Reith gave him the number to use in 1994.
Reith finally agreed to pay back the money after a sustained public assault by the opposition and media.
In 2001, Reith’s final year in office, he was promoted by Howard to Minister for Defence. A parliamentary Inquiry subsequently heaped a large share of the blame at Reith’s feet for the Children Overboard affair, noting that he released images and information to media that falsely claimed asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea to force their entry into Australia. John Howard and Philip Ruddock were also adversely named in the inquiry.
Shortly after the release, Reith was told by his officials the images were from another day, as asylum seekers were forced into the water due to SIEV 4 sinking. Reith did not correct the public record, and his falsities weren’t discovered for some months until after the ‘Tampa election’, at which he retired with his political career in tatters.
The inquiry found: “Minister Reith made a number of misleading statements, implying that the published photographs and a video supported the original report that children had been thrown overboard well after he had received definitive advice to the contrary.
“The Committee finds that Mr Reith deceived the Australian people during the 2001 Federal Election campaign concerning the state of the evidence for the claim that children had been thrown overboard from SIEV 4.”
Shortly after leaving parliament, Reith took a paid job advising Tenix, then Australia’s largest defence contractor, sparking widespread calls for rules to prevent politicians working in their portfolio areas immediately after leaving office.
Reith’s former press secretary, Ian Hanke, released a written statement on behalf of the family.
“It is with deep sadness that we confirm that following a brave battle with Alzheimer’s disease Peter Reith died peacefully on the afternoon of 8 November 2022.
“We are proud of his many achievements and his lifelong commitment to public service. A beloved grandfather, father, husband, brother, friend and respected colleague. He will be dearly missed and always cherished.”
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.