Author: Connie Fowler
When M.V. Tampa came sailing into Australian waters in August, 2001, it appeared as though a disaster was unfolding, in both human and political terms. A simple sea rescue turned into an international incident between Australia and Norway, and legislation was introduced into the Australian Federal Parliament that was breathtaking in its disregard for human rights. But this was no accidental mess. For a long time forces within the Coalition Government had been looking for a way to positively distinguish itself from the opposition in international affairs so that attention would be taken off its unpopular economic policies. An election was imminent and the Labor opposition was about to sweep into office as decisively as the Keating Government was swept out five years earlier. Pauline Hanson had shown that, deep down, Australians harboured xenophobia and racism, but how could a mainstream government exploit those fears without being tarred as racist? M.V. Tampa and its cargo of asylum seekers provided an opportunity for the Coalition to clandestinely move into immoral, racial based politics under the cover of national security. If Tampa on the horizon was luck, the ensuing events were staggeringly good political management.
On August 15, 2001 an Australian Coastwatch plane spotted an Indonesian ferry with an SOS painted on its roof and reported the ferry’s position to Indonesian authorities. The Norwegian cargo ship M.V. Tampa altered course after being alerted by Australian Search and Rescue in Canberra and picked up 438, mainly Afghani and Sri Lankan passengers from the sinking ferry one day later. Since the ship was headed for Singapore, the captain, Arne Rinnan, told the boatpeople that he would take them to an Indonesian port some 10 hours away. However, the boatpeople acted in ‘aggressive and highly excited manner’ and demanded to be taken to Australia. Indonesia indicated that it was likely to accept the asylum seekers while the Australian authorities made it clear that, under no circumstances, would Australia allow these people to enter its territory. Despite the unambiguous rejection of these people by the Australian Government, Captain Rinnan proceeded to enter Australian waters and demand that the asylum seekers be alighted to Christmas Island. The captain’s insistence was based on the belief that some asylum seekers were ill and others would become violent and endanger his crew if they were taken to Indonesia. From that first day, the Australian Government deliberately painted the asylum seekers and Captain Rinnan as somewhat dishonest. Prime Minister Howard’s first press conference suggested that M.V. Tampa had taken a longer route to get to an Australian port; a claim repeated on many occasions by himself and his Immigration Minister. The Government was in a confrontational mood and on the front foot, grabbing the initiative with the media. Everything, from that point onwards, would be filtered through a belief that the asylum seekers and Captain Rinnan were working from self interest and acting duplicitously.
Of course, Australia has a history of being afraid of those from outside its borders. The fear of Chinese immigrants swamping the Australian colonies helped draw them together into a Federation 100 years earlier. The new Australian nation would become a pioneer of immigration restrictions and they were always popular. In 1979 only 8% of the population believed that boat people should be allowed to stay in Australia. In the 1980’s many saw multiculturalism and increased Asian immigration as a threat to social cohesion and the so-called Australian way of life. Chief among these was the then opposition leader John Howard.
The same John Howard faced almost certain electoral defeat in the 2001 Federal Election. Opinion polls showed that the Government was way behind the Opposition because of the Government’s unpopular economic polices. John Howard, as one of the shrewdest political players in the country, knew that something had to be done.
Over the previous five years, One Nation had grabbed a large slice of traditional conservative voters with their blatantly xenophobic policies. On this issue of asylum seekers, Pauline Hanson advocated a simple policy: turn the boats back by force. The Prime Minister knew this policy had much support in the electorate. In fact, months before M.V. Tampa arrived on Australia’s doorstep, the Coalition had been distributing pamphlets in marginal seats saying that Labor was soft on illegal immigrants. In the safe Labor seat of Dixon, Cheryl Kernot’s opponent looked likely to snatch victory as he repeatedly claimed that the Liberals were rock solid on illegal immigrants while Labor was wavering. The Liberal party also polled Western Sydney extensively and found that issues such as border protection were going for them strongly, while domestic issues were running against them. The evidence is clear. The Government was fully aware of their poor electoral standing and knew that their only chance of recovery was to focus on issues of national security and drive a wedge between the Government and Opposition on the issue of refugees. The stage had been set, now all that was required was a major incident.
Into that context came the M.V. Tampa and its cargo of 438 asylum seekers. Immediately the Prime Minister insisted, through the media, that these people must return to Indonesia. Despite the strong and deliberately inflammatory statements by the Government, the Opposition acquiesced. The Government’s attempt to clearly demarcate on this issue was foiled because Labor knew it would take a substantial electoral hit in key marginal seats if it opposed these very popular moves by the Prime Minister. Both sides of politics turned a blind eye to the humanitarian responsibilities of Australia in the name of a national emergency. This national emergency that threatened the Australian way of life consisted of 17 boats bringing 1,640 people to Australia in the first half of 2001. By any standards, these numbers of asylum seekers are trivial.
In order to exploit the electorate’s paranoia, the Government skilfully refocussed the issue to people smugglers. Suddenly, the terror is not the amount of illegal immigrants but the rich foreign smugglers who traffic in desperate humanity. People smugglers were targeting Australia, but they were targeting every other developed nation as well and it was not a new phenomenon. Well before the incident with M.V. Tampa, the Government had established the unauthorised arrivals taskforce to continue ‘working with other countries to disrupt people smugglers’. Still, the need to drive a wedge between the Government and Opposition on this crucial issue remained.
From that first day, when Australian authorities rejected M.V.Tampa, the Government orchestrated a campaign of media management out of the Prime Minister’s Department. This was a ‘can-do exercise’ co-ordinated by Max Moore-Wilton and everyone involved knew the political dimensions of their tasks. Even the most humble observer could not fail to see the politics that were driving the Government’s actions. Gordon Thompson, a local councillor on Christmas Island summed it up when he said ‘the people can’t believe what’s going on. It’s absolute overkill. I think it’s a political stunt’. Yet experienced journalists continued to give the Government validity and authority by reporting in ways that tickled the ears of the electorate. For example, following the SAS boarding the M.V.Tampa, Michelle Grattan wrote ‘John Howard’s determination to use the Tampa to draw a line on boat people…’, reinforces the Government’s strategy to delineate its policy from the Opposition.
However, in its efforts to promote the Tampa incident as a political issue, the Government simply ignored Australia’s obligations to those rescued at sea and to those who seek asylum. On 27 August, John Howard said that the problem of the 438 people on M.V. Tampa was one for Indonesia and Norway, and this would be his assertion for the duration of the crisis even though no legal expert agreed with his analysis. Most people believed that Australia had an obligation to accept the asylum seekers under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. But Australia has a unique definition of ‘refugee’ that differs from other countries and causes no end of confusion. In places like Europe, refugees just turn up and are then processed according to their claims. Australia, on the other hand, doesn’t like people just arriving and has set up a process of sending officials to refugee camps to chose ‘suitable’ refugees and process them offshore. This allows for a slippery interpretation of Australia’s obligations. In its dealings with the Australian Government, Norway simply could not understand why Australia was reacting the way it did when it had accepted the UN Convention. John Howard knew exactly what he was saying and, in the end, it was not for the benefit of Norway-Australia relations, it was for the benefit of his own political fortunes. Norway and Indonesia were taking on John Howard on his turf with his rules, and the game was new to them.
Norway began its discussion with Australia on the basis that the people aboard M.V. Tampa were survivors of a shipwreck and maritime conventions demand that they be taken to the nearest port. Karsten Klepsvik, a spokesman for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said ‘you have to remember the way this all started. The Australian authorities sent out a signal: “Hey Tampa, you have to come help and rescue a ship in distress”’. If Norway would have remained firm in their stance, that these were shipwrecked people, they may not have been dragged into the Australian Government’s argument about asylum seekers. At the end of the day, Norway was right; these people were rescued and whatever their intention once they were safe was not Norway’s business.
The distortion of the underlying facts by the Australian Government was simply another way of justifying their aggressive actions that were employed to create a divide between the Government and the Opposition. Yet the Prime Minister insisted that harsh action was required to stop Australia from being invaded by unwanted illegal immigrants. In his speech to Parliament following the boarding of M.V. Tampa by SAS troops, John Howard said:
‘Every nation has the right to effectively control its borders and decide who comes here and under what circumstances, and Australia has no intention of surrendering or compromising that right. We have taken this action in furtherance of that view’.
Border protection became the new mantra for the Government. Furthermore, the Prime Minister justified extraordinary action as a means of intimidating other countries into negotiating on the issue of refugees. He said that the Government could not back down as it would seriously undermine negotiating control arrangements with our neighbours, particularly Indonesia. The fact that Norway would be subject to the same brutal diplomacy was simply collateral damage.
Aware that its unpopular economic policy was hurting the Government in the polls, every effort was made to ensure the issue of border protection would remain on the agenda with a hope that the Opposition would slip up. But Labor followed the Government down the refugee bashing road. The Opposition positioned itself in lockstep with the Prime Minister over the Tampa issue and would attack the Government on its bungling foreign policy. Federal Opposition leader Kim Beazley said ‘this is a test of the Government’s new-found relationship with Indonesia’ using irony to highlight the lack of workable foreign relations. Unfortunately, the Australian electorate didn’t catch Beazley’s irony. The following day, Beazley spelled it out so that everyone got the message ‘The solution resides with the Indonesians. And very little, it seems to me, has been done in that regard’. Despite the complete botch up of diplomatic efforts during the Tampa incident, the Federal Opposition could land a punch.
Seeing the political advantage evaporate so quickly, the Opposition made deliberate moves in its attempt to redirect the country’s attention back to domestic issues. In the days that followed the Tampa incident, Labor attacked the GST and the Minister for Small Business in question time, while the Government obsessively talked up the issue of illegal immigrants. At the same time, Greens leader Bob Brown was attacking the Government for its adoption of ‘Hanson-style policies’ and the Opposition for being ‘gutless’. Labor was stunned and scared. The Opposition, which had looked confident and professional only days earlier, now looked like a rabbit staring into the headlights of an oncoming car. They were unable to move left or right because of fear and the enticing lights of ‘refugee bashing’ would end up running them over.
Still, the Opposition had not crashed in the polls. The Government needed to deliver the knock-out blow. That blow would come in the guise of the Governments Border Protection legislation. This draconian legislation enabled the Government to excise from Australia’s migration zone certain territories such as Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef and to authorised the expulsion of asylum seekers from Australian territory. Further, it allows Australian Navy vessels to intercept boats before they enter Australian territory and it violates the human rights of asylum seekers by detaining the boatpeople or forcibly removing them from Australian territory. All of these powers are in the discretionary hands of the Minister for Immigration or the Minister’s officials. The Government finally got the reaction they wanted from the Opposition. Faced with such blatant violations of criminal, civil and maritime laws and basic human rights, the Federal opposition voted against the legislation. The Government pounced. A Liberal MP said ‘Beazley and Labor showed they are prepared to put the interests of people smugglers and illegal aliens above the interests of the ordinary, decent people of Australia’. That view stuck and the standing of the Labor party and Kim Beazley collapsed. The Government finally broke the bipartisan approach to asylum seekers and got the upper hand.
Clever actions, by themselves, are not enough to win elections. The incident with M.V. Tampa showed that the Government leaders were also master media manipulators as well as political tacticians. From a purely public relations point of view, Captain Rinnan’s assertion that the asylum seekers were likely to become violent if they were not delivered to Christmas Island played right into the Government’s hand. Prime Minister Howard seized the opportunity and said ‘We simply cannot allow a situation to develop where Australia is seen around the world as a country of easy destination. The perception that Australia is a ‘soft touch’ and that only a Coalition Government has the strength to deal with the issue would be the basis of its media campaign.
If that were the only misconception the Government exploited it would have been bad enough. But there is evidence that the Howard Government deliberately exploited the population’s ingrained fear of foreigners as well. The threats and potential violent actions of the asylum seekers aboard M.V. Tampa characterised them as undesirables who conceivably had terrorist tendencies. The Government’s vilification of the asylum seekers turned them from victims to aspiring terrorists. Later, following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11, Defence Minister Peter Reith warned publicly that the unauthorised arrival of boats on Australian territory ‘can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities’. As immoral as these manoeuvrings were they were quite simply using the uglier side of human nature for political gain. Commentators such as Crock and Saul go too far when they state Government rhetoric has engendered deep fears in the public. Even the Government cannot be blamed for 100 years of cultural bias against those from outside of Australia.
The Government can be blamed for unfairly portraying Captain Rinnan as a liar. As two days past and the M.V. Tampa drifted without medical or security assistance from Australia, Rinnan put his case to the world via the media. This strategy of engaging the press played beautifully into the Government’s hands. It allowed the Government to take control of the timing and interpretation of information in this crisis. On one hand there was a distressed ship with one telephone, on the other there was the Australian Government with all the technology, resources and power available to a sovereign state. Into this imbalance of power waded Rinnan for a stoush through the media. He lost before he threw the first punch.
Once Rinnan announced to the world that there were sick people on board who required urgent medical attention, the Government worked overtime to discredit his claim. The Prime Minister welcomed Rinnan’s announcement so much, he tabled it in Parliament. He then proceeded to discredit Rinnan by reporting:
‘I should inform the House that the preliminary assessment carried out by the Australian Defence Force doctor indicated that nobody – and I repeat – nobody has presented as being in need of urgent medical assistance as would require their removal to the Australian mainland or to Christmas island’.
In one fell swoop, the Government showed that Rinnan was a liar as evidenced by the official agency of the ADF. Rinnan’s own actions contributed to the ease with which the Government portrayed him as unreliable. While he told local media in Australia that the asylum seekers were sick, he told the Norwegian media that he was hijacked by the asylum seekers.
John Howard’s manipulation of the press and his caricatures of Rinnan as duplicitous, the boat people as dangerous and the Government as courageous worked brilliantly. Respected international publication such as the Financial Times in London backed Australia saying that the asylum seekers saying ‘it is Australia’s sovereign right to refuse, as a matter of principle, a responsibility that is not its own’. The media campaign had completely reoriented the issue to asylum seekers from victims of shipwreck. No one was listening to Rinnan seriously, while all ears were on the Government. Talkback monitor Rehame made the point that talkback radio is completely with the Prime Minister on this issue. Incredibly, the media did not see that they were being played like fools by the Howard Government. Michelle Grattan wrote ‘Australia…has been out manoeuvred by the Norwegian captain and his Government’. No objective assessment could agree with her conclusion. Rather, it was the lemming-like approach to reporting that allowed the Howard Government to make the agenda and decide the orientation of debate. The Tampa incident proves that a free press doesn’t guarantee a smart press.
The Norwegian Government’s manoeuvring actually consisted of trying to contain the political impact of the issue at home, rather than battling the Australian Government. Prime Minister Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer had contacted their counterparts on many occasions during the crisis and the response was simply that the whole mess was Australia’s problem. While that was probably true, Norway’s behaviour is unusual for a nation that espouses such a tolerant attitude to migrants and human rights. In fact the Norwegian Government had its own problems with illegal immigrants that complicated the matter. On the 20 November 2001, Norway would go to the polls and the incumbent Government were seen by the electorate as soft on asylum seekers. There is no doubt that Norway was also acting tough in the Tampa crisis for the benefit of domestic politics. According to Paul Watson, president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, this would be fairly true to form. He says ‘The Norwegians are great at telling other nations how to behave. It is always do as we say and not as we do’. Do as we say in this case seems to be specifically for the benefit of domestic Norwegian politics.
That unseen aspect to the Tampa crisis did catch the Australian Government on the hop. In view of the Norwegian domestic situation, there was no way that the Government of Norway could be seen abetting Australia’s hard line. Therefore, the advice given to Rinnan was to stay put. That was the only true snag of the operation from Australia’s point of view. Rinnan wouldn’t budge and the team managing the crisis were shocked at his stubbornness. When Rinnan issued a mayday at the behest of the Norwegian shipping line’s officials, outrage overtook Canberra. Prime Minister Howard rang his Norwegian counterpart and threatened military action to keep M.V. Tampa out of Australian territory. Of course, John Howard did not appreciate the political situation of Norway’s Prime Minister Stoltenberg, and he was stunned by the Norwegian’s apathy. This one crucial misreading of the landscape drove the Australian Government into the bizarre ‘Pacific Solution’.
On 1 September 2001, Prime Minister Howard announced the ‘Pacific Solution’. The asylum seekers stranded onboard M.V. Tampa would be processed on a third country, namely Nauru. Importantly, John Howard announced that those who were assessed as genuine refugees would not automatically come to Australia. Incredibly complex and incredibly expensive, the ‘Pacific Solution’ offered a political out for the governments of both Australia and Norway. Any rational assessment of the Pacific Solution and the resources it employed concludes that it is bad policy, both economically and internationally. But it was good politics. And it averted a crisis that the Australian Government did not foresee and was incapable of managing.
Yet even the inept saga of the Pacific Solution firmed the Government in the opinion polls. The strategy was so good, that a slight tactical change was almost irrelevant. The Government was trailing the Opposition by some 4-6 points before the Tampa crisis and led the Opposition by 3 percentage points following. For the Coalition, the Tampa incident and its concurrent media management meant that the Government would receive those votes that traditionally went to One Nation without having to enter into a grubby deal for preferences. In one master political stroke, the far right was wiped off the political map and the Government picked up the fallout.
The result for the Government was better than anyone could have predicted. John Howard won the leadership race in the minds of the Australian people. He had not been so popular, trusted and respected since cracking down on gun ownership after the Port Arthur massacre. His genius lay in embracing tough policies that were popular and using the media for his own purposes. While most politicians would see controversy and critical headlines as a negative, John Howard sensed that, on this issue, they were just the opposite. He was right and he convincingly won the Federal Election that followed the Tampa incident. Yet it seems he knew it was all just a game. Just weeks after the election victory, the Prime Minister said that turning asylum seekers’ boats back to sea was ‘completely inhumane’. You see, turning back the Tampa was politics not humanitarianism.
The Tampa crisis was not good luck for the Government. For a long time, the upper levels of the Coalition were actively looking for a way to exploit the inherent xenophobia in the electorate for political advantage. Taking a battering in the polls because of unpopular economic policies, the Government needed to shift the orientation of political debate towards immigrants and grab the moral low ground of racial politics. Months earlier, the Liberal party had been polling in marginal seats and realised that they could only retain government if they adopted a stance on refugees that aligned them with One Nation’s far right wing views. All the machinery was in place to take advantage of the first crisis that emerged. By manipulating the media, the Government would recharge its electoral fortunes by making the Opposition look weak in this area. Then M.V. Tampa sailed toward Christmas Island. The ensuing diplomatic furore dragged Norway into a battled that it did not want nor did it deserve. But that was all by-play to the main game of controlling the media and getting re-elected. In the end the Prime Minister showed brilliant political skill by delivering a third term for the Coalition. The long term impact on the psyche of the nation, once known for acceptance and tolerance, has yet to be seen.
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