AbstractIt seems Max Moore-Wilton’s commitment to full and frank disclosure is not absolute, writes Peter Browne IN the days since Mike Scrafton revealed what he told John Howard about the ‘children overboard’ affair before the last election, the question of whether he should have ignored the risks and spoken out sooner has been intensely debated. Loudest of all was the contribution of Max Moore-Wilton, the former head of the Prime Minister’s Department, who told ABC Radio that - among other things - Mr Scrafton was a ‘weak personality’ if he had indeed failed to speak out because he feared retribution. Mr Moore-Wilton’s intervention brought to mind an intriguing episode that came to light, without much publicity, during the hearings of the Senate committee on the children overboard affair. A key witness to the inquiry was Jennifer Bryant, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet official who had carried out an internal investigation of how the false accusation against sylum seekers came to be made by ministers during the election campaign. The transcript of her testimony to the Senate committee reveals Ms Bryant to be conscientious and methodical - but also very careful not to say more than is absolutely necessary in response to questions from the senators. By the end of a very long and detailed examination by Labor’s John Faulkner, we start to get an idea of why this might be the case. Senator Faulkner was trying to establish whether anyone had pressured Ms Bryant to modify her views or her testimony on the circumstances surrounding the children overboard allegations. Eventually it emerged that when Ms Bryant had made a lengthy appearance before the Senate Estimate Committee - which had also looked at the incident - two months earlier she had taken the opportunity during the dinner break to seek out one of the Prime Minister’s advisors, Miles Jordana, to check on some factual matters. The transcript continues: Ms Bryant: I went down to the office and, as I recorded at the time, I spoke to Mr Jordana. I certainly saw others in the office, but it was Mr Jordana that I sought clarification from. Senator Faulkner: But you only spoke to Mr Jordana? Ms Bryant: No. There were a number of advisers in the office and we nodded and spoke of the progress of the hearings in the course of the day. But it was Mr Jordana I sought the clarification from in response to the question you had asked me. ‘A number of advisors’ sounds innocuous enough. But, pages later, it emerges that the group was a little more heterogenous than that phrase suggests. In response to a comment from Senator Faulkner Ms Bryant revealed that the Prime Minister ‘said hello to me and made some comments about the events of the day. I spoke to him in that context briefly.’ Senator Faulkner expressed his surprise that she hadn’t mentioned his presence earlier. Ms Bryant: I did say that there were a number of others in the office that evening. Senator Faulkner: The Prime Minister is a reasonably significant person to speak to. Ms Bryant: Sure. Senator Faulkner: So the Prime Minister is one. Can we be precise about who you did speak to? Ms Bryant: I recall that evening seeing Mr Jordana and Mr Nutt. I spoke to Mr Hazell in the corridor. I nodded to Mr Sinodinos. I also recall a number of the female staff, assistants to the various advisers and so on. Over the next few pages we learn how Ms Bryant had encountered some of these people in the corridor on her way to see Mr Jordana, and how she had ended up in the Prime Minister’s office with Mr Howard, his principal private secretary Tony Nutt, his chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos, and a senior departmental official, Alan Henderson. ‘I think Mr Moore-Wilton was present,’ added Ms Bryant. As Senator Faulkner painstakingly extracts pieces of the jigsaw puzzle Ms Bryant, the transcript makes for gripping reading. But it also raises the tantalising issue: why was she so reluctant to talk about this encounter? Senator Faulkner: No-one suggested to you how you might approach your evidence at the Senate estimates committee? Ms Bryant: I do not think that anyone tried to influence the fact that I intended to place those matters on the record. Senator Faulkner: I did not say ‘influence’; I said ‘approach’. Ms Bryant: As you will recall, at the time I crafted some words which I read out in the room. I had given the flat presentation of those some thought, but I do not think people sought to dictate an approach to me. Senator Faulkner: Did either the Prime Minister or anyone from the Prime Minister’s office indicate to you the importance and significance of the evidence that you were giving in relation to them or the government more generally? Ms Bryant: I do not recall that being particularly the case. I had a sense of the flatter the better, but I do not recall… That’s as close as Senator Faulkner got to finding out what was going on in the Prime Minister’s office that night. ‘I had a sense of the flatter the better,’ says Ms Bryant - which sounds very much like a euphemism for ‘say as little as possible’. Coming from the Prime Minister and a collection of his closest advisors and officials, it’s a message that could have made a deep impression on a departmental officer. According to Ms Bryant’s recollection, Max Moore-Wilton was present at that meeting - the same Max Moore-Wilton who, just a few days ago, attacked Mike Scrafton for not having come out with the whole story when he was interviewed for the departmental inquiry into the children overboard allegations. It’s a pity that Jennifer Bryant wasn’t given the same encouragement to be frank when she was appearing before the Senate Estimate Committee. Peter Browne is editor of APO. This article first appeared in the Age.