Authors: David Marr and Marian Wilkinson
When the Australian Coastwatch Surveillance plane, the ‘de Havilland 8’, first spotted a Suspect Illegal Entry Vessel (SIEV) to the north of Christmas Island on 23 August 2001, Australia’s detention centres were full to capacity with 3,600 asylum seekers. In the previous fortnight Christmas Island had seen the arrival of boats carrying over 600 asylum seekers, more than ever before.
“So when the KM Palapa 1 (Palapa) got into trouble on the crossing, some ruthless Australian beaurocrats took it as a godsend. Somehow, these people could now be sent back to Indonesia. For over 20 hours, rescue authorities in Australia did nothing effective to help the people on the Palapa except harass the Indonesians to take responsibility for the problem. In the end, Australian rescue authorities had no choice but to put out a call for the Palapa’s rescue. The MV Tampa (Tampa) answered. But Australia was still determined these people would go back to Indonesia. What followed was a crisis which for a time engaged the attention of the world.”(1)
The asylum seekers on the Palapa, wondered “why they had been put through the ordeal of the last day.”(2) When the Tampa finally moored alongside them, they did not understand why they had been made to endure the storm of the previous night, which they had barely survived. Feeling exhausted, ill and thirsty, it made no difference to them which conventions or processes were applied to the situation. “These people were, indeed, refugees who had, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”(3) Due to the ‘Pacific Solution’, this right did not apply until they reached the mainland.
The irresponsible role of the ‘people smugglers’ cannot be underestimated. “They play with human lives…. and only care about their money”.(4) An Afghan refugee Hamid, paid US$11,500 for his family to journey from Kabul to Australia and was obviously promised much more than the hazardous passage on the Palapa. That amount could have purchased first class Qantas tickets. It was interesting to note the amount of assistance this amount of money could purchase in the form of officially assisted passage. Hamid “had watched officials giving the smugglers a hand all the way from Kabul”.(5) The smugglers had packed the Palapa with human cargo in every possible crevice. Passengers were given water, and bread or biscuits for the journey. Fumes from the engine made the passengers ill immediately. Cheap lifejackets would not keep an unconscious person afloat, and there were none for children. There was no Global
Positioning Satellite (GPS), or any communication system, to ensure the boat could not be intercepted, so the captain had only a compass to find Christmas Island. The engine was regularly stopped as it overheated, eventually seizing altogether, rendering the boat “dead in the water” when spotted by surveillance.
It is difficult to understand the desperate measures that asylum seekers are prepared to take for themselves and others in order to reach the Australian modern western democracy, until it is put into context. Firstly “population flux will converge towards those countries that provide the more generous social benefits or the best living conditions.”(6) Secondly, Australia has traditionally had an image of tolerance and generosity. The reasons for this are the “Years of hard diplomatic effort, gone into selling that message to the world. For decades Australia ‘as a founding member of the UN’, had positioned itself as a leader of United Nations’ campaigns against racism, poverty and oppression”.(7) Australia is a signatory member to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and the related 1967 protocol, obliges signatories to consider claims for asylum. “Some were already on the road when smugglers sold them the idea of Australia, a more reliable and less expensive destination than Europe or North America.”(8) Many refugees have been welcomed into Australia. But this may be an uneasy truce. While Australia is fortunate not to have the race riots of some other developed countries, there is an increasing undertone of fear that multiculturalism may not be working out.”(9)
‘A common problem in the refugee world’ are those posing as refugees with no right to do so, that intend to migrate from their country of origin for better opportunities. These people are migration queue jumpers, who do not wish to wait, or believe will not be granted residency so avoid using legal channels for migrations purposes. The media in Australia has had a major role in the promotion of all illegal refugees’ status as queue jumpers. There is in fact, no refugee queue. You are either a refugee who has the right to seek asylum, or you are not. The figures prove that very few refugees are illegal immigrants. (10)
In the early 1980’s Australia accepted 20,000 refugees per year. In 2001 this number has dropped to 12,000, which has been static for three years, despite the increasing refugee numbers worldwide. In 2000, 300,000 refugee’s sought asylum in Europe. Just over 4,000 reached Australia by boat or plane.(11) On average, 84 per cent of people arriving in Australia unofficially, by boat, are found to be legitimate refugees. In 1999, 97 per cent of applicants from Iraq without valid visas, and 93 per cent of those from Afghanistan, were found to be genuine refugees. (12)
The misconception about Australia as an accessible asylum seeking destination became obvious when “the Federal Government excised Christmas Island, the Cocos Islands and Ashmore Reef from Australia’s Immigration Zone – reducing the territory within which Australia may be obliged to respond to pleas for aid.”(13)
It is clear from the very beginning that the handling of the Tampa never followed the normal protocols and this was entirely John Howard’s decision. Under Maritime laws a boat found to be ‘dead in the water – without mode of power’ would be subject to International Convention on Safety of life at Sea 1974 (SOLAS), Australia becoming a signatory nation to this protocol in 1983. After Coastwatch spotted the Palapa on the first and second occasions it could treat the matter not as a SOLAS matter as there were no obvious signs of distress, or SOS signs. The boat was unable to be contacted as it had no communications equipment for the very same reason. So at this point Coastwatch could deny any potential SOLAS emergency. On the third sighting the Palapa had clearly demonstrated an emergency with SOS signs.
Australia’s response was to try and coerce the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Authority (Badan SAR National – BASARNAS) into action. Australia at all times claimed the Palapa was in the Indonesian zone within the 1990 Zone Agreement, north of the thin grey line. In actual fact the agreement does little more than agree about who would be best to conduct search and rescue operations from which zone. However it is clear that this agreement does not entirely obligate anyone to conduct such operation in their respective zones. Beazley and Howard were both under the misapprehension that this agreement would compel Indonesia to take action. Indonesia didn’t respond and rescue authorities in Australia didn’t treat this as uncommon. Once the call went out to all shipping, different protocols were applied.
Arne Rinnan was returning to Oslo via Singapore on his final voyage before retirement as captain of the Tampa, when the call came through. The Tampa is owned by the Wilhelmsen-Wallenius Line, the biggest, richest shipping line in the world, with traditional trading links with Australia. The Tampa ship is worth multimillions, was carrying 20 million in cargo, and costs $70,000 per day to operate. This is an important fact, as it negates any likely involvement the Tampa had in people smuggling for profit. The Tampa was the closest ship to the Palapa, some 4 hours away, and Rinnan changed course immediately to respond to the SOLAS call. This put Rinnan and the Tampa in a ‘United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea’ 1982 (UNCLOS) Australia became a signatory nation in 1994 and this law is part of both Australia and Norway. UNCLOS obliges every ship’s master: ‘in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers, to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost’ and ‘ to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress’.(14)
Rinnan applied Scandinavian principles and Captain’s rights to the situation before seeking permission of his employers, who when notified supported his actions. Both captain and owners were aware of the problems following the Vietnam war, when a number of shipping lines and masters were sailing vessels in the South China Sea, as boat people began fleeing persecution. The case of the Entalina (1979), the Shell Tanker, after rescuing boat people found in the Java Sea had no place of destination to land it’s human cargo. As the ship was British it was claimed Britain should take responsibility to land the survivors.(15) This situation highlighted a captain’s dilemma in the face of terrible uncertainty. “The United Nations attempts to write a binding convention had failed. Australia was not compelled by law to land the Palapa survivors. No nation was. This was created by the gap in international law the UN had been unable to fill”.(16) However, legal and moral obligations are different issues. Moral issues were not the focus of the elected Australian government who were going to turn “the Tampa issue into a leadership issue and demonstrate strength of character through its leader’s response to the situation”.(17)
The news polls of the 1970’s proved that Australians were unsympathetic towards the plight of these people (18) and as Rinnan, Wilhelmsen-Wallenius, Norway and the rest of the world would soon discover little had changed in the past 30 years.
Coastwatch was in contact with Rinnan and assisted the Tampa in locating the Palapa. Rinnan enquired as to where he was to disembark the human cargo. The pilot claimed he didn’t know and disappeared over the horizon. What was now to occur would capture the attention of the whole world. “The Tampa accidentally sailed into a hurricane of Australian anger”.(19)
Since the beginning Australia has associated the arrival of the boat as invasion. This ideology has been reinforced by the media, promoting fears of invasion. Call the boat an SIEV (Suspect Illegal Entry Vessel); a PUA (Possible Unauthorised Arrival, asylum seeker); a PII (Possible Illegal Immigrant); an SUNC (Suspect Unauthorised Non-citizen, asylum seeker); an AU (Unauthorised Arrival); these acronyms are endless, but all have the same ultimate meaning, they arrived uninvited. A sovereign national can always close its borders to a boat load of ship wreck survivors, albeit unpopular internationally. It may not be moral, but it’s not illegal either. Back at the press conference Howard was promising reporters “that boat will never land in our waters, never!”(20) Howard’s hardline strategy against the Tampa was beginning to backfire, as the Tampa in spite of all threats, continued to steam towards Christmas Island.
It has been popularly targeted as nationalistic to be hot on border protection and the right to choose who comes to Australia and under which circumstances. This reached ‘dog pitch’ when promoted by John Howard prior to the 2001 election.
“Australia has been a pioneer of immigration restrictions … Labor always stood for border control”.(21) Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister when the first Vietnamese took to the boats in 1975. He told his Cabinet “he was not having hundreds of fucking Vietnamese Balts coming into the country”.(22) The surprise of this comment is that it was the same Prime Minister who promoted Scandinavian egalitarian principles, albeit that the electorate was unwilling to fund the expense of these measures. “Bob Hawke branded the next wave of boat people queue jumpers and threats to Australian immigration policy”.(23) …. with enthusiastic co-operation of Liberal and national parties – that began the system of mandatory, indefinite incarceration of boat people without trial in the early 1990’s. Australia having signed, and often championed, a number of international conventions, that should have ruled out just such a strategy. Beazley was no new broom on boat people”.(24) Beazley claimed Labor’s policies were never light years away from the government at all, never had been. “When Beazley and Howard joined forces to create Temporary Protection Visas (TVPs), the smugglers boats began filling with women and children.
Airport security was tightened, forcing more into the boats.
The Howard government had been trying to stem the flow of illegal arrivals for two years without any success. The ethos of the electorate was similar to that of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) that was ‘embattlement, cynicism and total control’.(25) The general image of these people was: illegal for having no visas; queue jumpers for making their own way to Australia; and, rich for paying people smugglers for the journey.(26) The Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Indonesian Police had been conducting disruption operation. Phillip Ruddock as Minister, had earned the reputation as the Minister without ears, for his inability to berate Indonesian officials without hearing an inappropriate answer. Marr claims “Ruddock had been converted from someone with a social conscience into somebody who was determined above all to hand on to his job and gain the respect of his colleagues”.(27)
Corrupt Indonesian police officers and soldiers were assisting people smuggling operations. Disruption operations in Indonesia were effective when the appropriate spies could be recruited. Some questions were raised about the dubious nature of these recruits, such as Kevin Ennis and it was unclear exactly what was the ‘definition of disruption’. However by 1999 it was clear steps to date were proving ineffective as the number of illegal arrivals began to rise sharply to 3,274, as did the media coverage. Hanson’s One Nation began demanding the government begin turning boats away, and the Green’s began to cut into the support base of both major parties. With the assistance of Max Moore-Wilton under the Howard Government “a new border protection regime was introduced”.(28)
This was the first time the government mentioned the ‘possible use of the armed forces’ within the context of border protection. Howard was promoting “on one hand trying to behave like a humanitarian decent country, on the other hand, making certain that we don’t become just an easy touch for illegal immigrants.”(29)
The bashing of refugees has made the Prime Minister very popular and so Labor is reluctant to challenge his views for fear of annoying its supporters.(30) Beazley backed Howard’s ‘stolen Hanson idea’ of punishing boat people, keeping them on probation for a few years in case they could be returned home when the situation had calmed. One of Labor’s few measures of resistance came in May, 1997, when the party baulked at passing legislation to cut the courts out of the process entirely. This was on the grounds of decent government. Marr claims that “a sympathetic position for people who came to the country illegally is non existent. A more generous policy towards letting in people on humanitarian grounds, refugees, whatever – not quite as non existent but close to it.” (31) Furthermore the journalist Hugh McKay was siting the popular link being developed that illegal arrivals were most likely to behave illegally once in Australia. “Nascent racism, ancient fears of invasion by immigration and talkback radio ranting against Asian crime were about to fuse into a new and extraordinarily potent political force”.(32)
Mass sea rescues of refugees had not been reported for over 20 years. “The press and the country were predisposed to accept the Prime Ministers claim that this was not Australia’s problem. Politically it was impossible for this mass rescue to take its normal course”.(33) The rights and wrongs of the situation were not the issue anymore, rather how to enforce the direction already given. Howard was resolute and claimed firstly it was no feasible for the Tampa to moor at Flying Fish Cove and secondly the Tampa took a longer journey to reach Australian Territorial waters. Without question the media and the electorate believed this to be true.
When the crew of the Tampa had searched, numbered and counted the 438 survivors from the Palapa the top deck of the Tampa was overcrowded with weary survivors of the days at sea. It took over 4 hours to transfer the survivors. The Palapa was wrecked by the Tampa crew when the transfer was complete. Repeated orders were given to Rinnan to take the survivors to Merak. The Wilhelmsen-Wallenius line made a crucial decision to treat the Tampa survivors as survivors not asylum seekers, as they were not concerned with these issues. This affected greatly how the company would deal with the issues throughout the crisis. They were also aware that “the asylum issue was driving Australia’s repeated orders to take the survivors to Indonesia.”(34) When the representatives of the survivors met with Rinnan their priorities were clear. First priority was to be taken to Christmas Island or any western country. Secondly they did not wish to go to Indonesia or Singapore. If their wishes were not met they threatened to jump from the ship and commit mass suicide. Rinnan feared for the safety of his ship, passengers, and crew but never feared for his own safety. He promised the survivors they would see the lights of Christmas Island by midnight. Rinnan was advised that if the Tampa arrived at Christmas Island under the threat of hijack there would be serious consequences for the perpetrators. It suited the Australian government to exaggerate the threats made by the survivors, as no nation owes anything to hijackers.(35) Christmas Island was the nearest port of call and Rinnan was unsure if Merak would be open. Flying Fish Cove could not moor a ship the size of the Tampa, but that was not the issue.
After a week at sea the survivors were very sick. “The Wilhelmsen-Wallenius Line believed that the lack of courtesy shown and breaches to convention were so gross, they would be resolved when the government became expertly advised”.(36) Once Rinnan’s defiance was known, Flying Fish Cove was closed indefinitely. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) had failed to find a resolution over disembarkment. Rinnan was told that the disembarkment issue was to be resolved by Indonesia and Norway. Rinnan was again defiant and refused to move. He was moored within 10 kilometres of Flying Fish Cove. “Australia has argued against fixing clear-cut rules, favouring individual cases be solved by international solidarity and by humanitarian principles”.(37) Arguing for this kind of arrangement had obvious benefits when refusing to allow the Tampa to enter Australian territorial waters, and no law could force the Australian government to change its stance. This created some interesting scenarios that seem to have been considered unimportant. Firstly to expect the ship to travel to Norway with its human cargo, was completely impractical as the ship was never facilitated for such a journey. No attempt was ever made by Australia to persuade Singapore to accept the survivors as an alternate solution to Indonesia. Australia was neither interested, nor willing to upset diplomatic relations with Singapore. The Government at all times kept the mantra that the survivors were rescued in the Indonesian Zone, and therefore expecting Indonesia only to do its duty, even though no such obligation existed in reality, and the electorate believed this allegation. “The Refugee Review Tribunal has repeatedly stated that asylum seekers should not be sent to Indonesia, as Indonesia is likely to send them back to their home country regardless of the danger they may face there. Indonesia has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or related Protocol which obliges signatories to consider claims for asylum”.(38) Furthermore, no humanitarian consideration was given to the people who had barely survived an almost perilous journey at sea, and had spent days on the deck of a cargo ship in the tropical wet season. The United Nations position on the refugees was never given any consideration, nor was the Wilhelmsen-Wallenius Line that had nobly collected these people from the sea at Australia’s request, and told to go elsewhere to drop them off. Back in Australia “the crisis had moved to a new plane, brawling with a great maritime power and its most sensitive neighbour. August 29 was to be one of the most bizarre days in Australia’s history.(39)
This was only the beginning of the mess as the survivors required varying levels of medical assistance. Whilst promising assistance would arrive, Canberra wasn’t in a hurry as the problem would be that if Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Officers (DIMA) or military personnel with DIMA powers boarded the Tampa, the refugee’s could claim asylum and would have to be taken to land if the boat was inside Australian territorial waters. Usually the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) an arm of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) with its responsibilities would respond to such emergencies. But orders from the Department of Premier and Cabinet ordered them out of the loop, even though they are an independent authority they followed the request. The stop-gap solution would be to keep all staff with DIMA powers away from the ship. “If the Tampa entered territorial waters, the only way to keep the survivors out of Australia would be to keep them out of the courts.”(40) Not only was Flying Fish Cove now closed, but so was every other port in Asia.
The Tampa communications were being monitored by Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) responsible for domestic intelligence, but the Norwegians expected this and communications remained open. At all times the Norwegian government, Wilhelmsen-Wallenius and Rinnan “were concerned with Australia’s treatment towards shipwrecked people, not modified by any assumption of refugees claiming asylum. At no time were they in contact with the Indonesian Government. Scandinavian “perceptions of Australia changed daily.”(41) BASARNAS offered medical assistance in Merak. A hunger strike began on the ship.
The only boarding party allowed on the Tampa would be military, so the SAS were preparing boarding teams on Christmas Island. A military team was exempt from the migration act, and all SAS operations were conducted in secrecy. The People Smuggling Taskforce decided on total control of information on the Tampa. This has turned Christmas Island into an armed military camp. The local resident issued a statement deploring Australia’s actions and praising Rinnan.
Meanwhile Howard was sprouting humanitarian and border control issues, and continued to pound the electorate with his message of “ending the flow and the flow is through Indonesia”. (42) Government lawyers concluded that there was no legal reason for expelling the Tampa and its passengers if it reached Australian waters. Ancient prerogative powers existed for border protection but fresh legislation was required.
The Public Service under Max Moore-Wilton or ‘Max the Axe’ due to his reputation for slicing up the traditional beaurocracy, had politicised the environment. He had $124 million for an aggressive four year campaign to deal with illegal arrivals. A team called the People Smuggling Taskforce under Jane Halton had been created to deal with such issues. Max Moore-Wilton “stood at the centre of the Tampa story and its aftermath”(43) …and planned the development of the armed forced for Operation Relex and the Pacific Solution.
The Tampa was in contact with Haukeland Hospital in Bergen who specialises in rescue medical emergencies. Children’s heads were being shaved to treat lice and scabies. Nordic search and rescue centre demanded ASMA Rescue Co-Ordination Centre (RCC Australia) send help to the Tampa. No assistance arrived that day. Tensions were mounting.
The Wilhelmsen-Wallenius line were demanding four conditions before leaving; immediate medical assistance; armed security for the crew; safety equipment for 438 people; a country to land the human cargo. Rinnan reported to the world via the Gard News. Several accounts were published with digital photographs. Howard suggested Wilhelmsen-Wallenius were engaged in deception. “The failure to deliver swift medical help to the Tampa was Howard’s great tactical mistake. He repeatedly assured Wilhelmsen-Wallenius it would arrive and waited to prepare a cumbersome military operation to deliver it.”(44)
The Tampa issued a Pan Pan (an urgent message concerning the safety of a ship or persons) on August 28. No response from RCC Australia. The Tampa issued a Mayday (A message that the ship is in grave and imminent danger and requires immediate assistance) on August 29, requesting urgent medical assistance. RCC Australia responded by forbidding the Tampa to enter territorial waters and questioned Rinnan’s judgment. A helicopter and medical assistance was promised. BASARNAS advised the Tampa could no longer enter at any Indonesian Port. The Mayday created new obligations for Australia. Again Rinnan was threatened with fines, imprisonment and loss of business opportunities, although this was denied by the Prime Minister. Australia’s “crisis had moved to a new plane, brawling with a great maritime power and its most sensitive neighbour. August 29 would have to be considered one of the most appalling in Australia’s political history. Apart from the sea change it had created in Australian politics, it also demonstrated the determination shown by the Prime Minister to do anything to achieve his desired outcome.
At 11.39am Rinnan decided to cross the line. The SAS were ordered to board the ship. No Commonwealth flag was flying due to its related obligations. The military was now running the show under orders from the top.”(45) Troops were already on the ladder when the crew of the Tampa realised and tried to pull the ladder in. Once on board the SAS medical doctor, the infamous Mr Hammond who had claimed to be a civilian doctor on Christmas Island, conducted the medical assessments. Although this action was not to code, the crew were relieved once the soldiers were on board. Australia was now threatening to tow the Tampa back out to sea. Lawyers for Wilhelmsen-Wallenius were preparing an injunction on the claim that the Tampa was unseaworthy. Furthermore the government was preparing the paperwork to authorise such behaviour: A Bill for an Act to provide for the removal of ships from the Territorial Sea’s of Australia and for related purposes. “This new regime was to operate in spite of any other law.”(46) Labor was not going to support this draconian legislation as Beazley believed the law prepared for a dictatorship not a democracy.(47) Howard would make Beazley pay, and the media crucified him. Alan Jones provided Howard with the platform required to deliver his message to the electorate. Furthermore was a popular supporter of ‘linking ethnic crime with queue jumping boat people and Muslims in west Sydney. Jones’s support for the Tampa solution was absolute and urged Howard to be tougher.(48) If the boat could not be towed out the sea, then the refugee’s would have to be removed instead. The HMAS Manoora was steaming towards Christmas Island.
Howard announces the Pacific Solution. “Never was the spin more subtle … and there was hardly a press quiz”.(49) This was not an original idea, rather a copy of the British/Palestine arrangement following World War 2, and the United States solution in Cuba. Australia sourced Pacific countries not signatory nations to UN Refugee conventions and protocols. Nauru had to close its courts, and visas would be required to travel from New Zealand to Australia to plug the gaps. Another advantage was that Australia could fund struggling banana republic economies and persuaded nations to accept responsibility for Australia’s refugee problem. The UN disapproved as it threatened to undermine the whole international protection principle, so Howard snubbed them, claiming it was a political trick. New Zealand had never had a boat, and offered to accept 150 refugees if Australia would pick up the airfare, which it did. For $16.5 million Nauru agreed to accept the rest. Ashmore Reef and Cocos Islands were cut as a reception point for incoming asylum seekers, from the migration zone. When the Pacific solution was released to the press they were hardly interested.
Back on the Tampa the red cross had been denied access to the ship. The Norwegian ambassador was allowed a visit, for which after a breach of diplomacy, was handed a letter from the Afghan survivors. This letter was sent to UNHCR and Australian government with great determination by the Norwegian government to compel Australia to face its obligations hoping the rescued could be put ashore.(50) The Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) legal case began being reported in the press. The Lawyers on this case believed the government would lose this case. “This represented the underlying contest between law and popular politics was absolutely unchanged”.(51) The news of the arrival of the Manoora arrived in court and the parties were sent to mediate. The cost of this defence could be enormous, with catastrophic financial repercussions if the legal teams for the refugee’s lost.(52) The PILCH lawyers agreed to transfer the survivors to the Manoora if they would be returned following the result of legal proceedings. It was too great a risk for the PILCH lawyers to take any other course. They could not afford the costs of delaying the transfer, so authorised its commencement. The survivors wished to hug the crew of the Tampa but “no protestations of affection were forwarded.”(53) The Tampa’s farewell from the island began with fireworks, the crew were relieved to be leaving.
Howard announced Operation Relex, and a media frenzy followed. It marked the commencement of the armed forces uncomfortable liaison with the government. Relex was designed as a show of forced designed to frighten people smugglers and asylum seekers while impressing the electorate.(54) The navy was not convinced that it could deliver Canberra’s mandate. This also opposed the rules of ‘saving lives at sea’ as part of navy code. The navy was aware of ugly violent confrontations seen in the British blockade in Palestine and with the US blockade of Haiti.(55) Furthermore without updated protection bills questioned the legality of operations.(56) This was dirty work rarely seen outside the confines of war. Yet the navy agreed to undertake its role closely directed by Halton’s People Smuggling Taskforce in Canberra, a rare liaison. The government was taking extraordinary steps to keep information from the public. The kind of censorship imposed had only been seen during wartime.(57) “Due to the press gallery’s familiarity with Howard’s obsession with controlling information, this change aroused little comment”.(58) This created a change in culture.
Meanwhile, Reith, Downer and Ruddock flew to Indonesia to try to repair some of the damage done with the Tampa, and rally support for Relex. Furthermore they wanted cheap fuel for navy operations; Indonesia to outlaw people smuggling; and set up an Australian funded detention centre in Indonesia. Talk about recalcitrant. They failed, talks were cut short, but the Operation was able to continue because Indonesia didn’t refuse otherwise, however an Indonesian air force plane was sent to buzz navy operations at Ashmore Reef.
In Canberra the Taskforce was dealing with an unprecedented number of issues and was under immense pressure to deliver results. They included; the Federal Court Case on the Tampa; new arrivals on Ashmore Reef; intelligence on Suspect Illegal Entry Vessels (SIEVs 1, 2 &3) Ratna Mujia, Aceng, Sumber Bahagia heading for Australia; establishment of detention camps in Nauru; negotiations with Papua New Guinea; Iraqi hunger strikes on the Manoora; the new amended border protection legislation; and the children overboard issue was just about to break. A rolling crisis of uninterrupted intensity. But the key government strategy was to deal with all issues in a rush.(59) This is in complete opposition to conservative Burkean principles who would only act after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. (60)
The planned new legislation, was to remove the remaining rights of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia uninvited. “The first time a western nation had moved to tighten the definition of refugee status. A unique proposal to exclude the scrutiny of the courts. Such action is not often contemplated as a democracy”.(61) Labor capitulates, Beazley supports the new Bill.
In the Federal Court whilst hearing the appeal of the Tampa case, Judges Beaumont, Black and French received death threats. Judgment was set aside and costs were claimed by the government. This is unprecedented and the PILCH lawyers claim this declared ‘open season on refugees’.(62)
Marr claims the agility, resilience and daring the government showed in outmanoeuvring: the United Nations; the Norwegian and Indonesian governments; the Wilhelmsen-Wallenius Line; legal commentators; human rights advocates; a few brave politicians; the Greens and Democrats in the Senate; Peter Andren in the House of Representatives; a few members in Liberal and Labor caucuses was immense. But they couldn’t have done it without the collaboration of the Opposition.(63) Australia had become a grubby little ‘push-off’ nation under the Relex policy, and it had been implemented without consultation. Furthermore after this massive sea change in political life in Australia the boats were still coming! By September 13, the navy had over 1,000 asylum seekers on its boats, and the Tampa survivors were still to be unloaded from the Manoora at Nauru.
On September 11, the game changed for good. The horror of this event could not be forgotten, and terrorism was the defining threat to the western world. Howard was handed a huge electoral advantage being Prime Minister at this time and committed troops to the War on Terror.(64) Howard’s popularity soared. Beazley was promoted as unpatriotic and could not get an issue into the news. Reith was promoting the popular link between terrorism and Muslim asylum seekers. With war looming the navy was less enthusiastic about its role in Operation Relex.(65) It was indeed an irony when Australian naval vessels were unable to leave for Gulf War duties, because they were involved in domestic operations repelling refugees fleeing the very same oppressive regime they were going to liberate.
On October 6 the SIEV 4 ‘the Olong’ with 223 occupants, was limping towards Australia being shadowed by the HMAS Adelaide. A battle was to occur between civilian operations and military codes. What was to occur would embroil the navy in the biggest political scandal since Vietnam. Warning shots (23) were fired over the SIEV and panic, and anger erupted as the Australian soldiers boarded. People began jumping into the water and a child was held over the water by her father who was gesturing to soldiers to take his child. Commander Banks had been interrupted during the crisis to report for which brief notes were taken. Forth hand versions of the event became formal advice to Minister Reith, and the ‘children overboard’ story was off and running. This event reinforced that “determined boat people would go to any lengths to play on Australian naval obligations to rescue drowning people at sea”.(66) This was a big election story for Howard who needed no encouragement on this issue. When Reith began to face sceptical questioning, he backed himself into a corner claiming he had supporting evidence. Then evidence was produced in an inaccurate context. When the error was found by the Navy they attempted to correct the matter, which was denied. Barrie met with Reith and agreed the matter would be dropped and the navy would accept the consequences. Meanwhile the sabotaged vessel began to sink under tow. Under Relex the Adelaide could not rescue the Olong, and under SOLAR obligations could not watch people drown. 223 people were rescued in heroic displays by sailors. The event had an immense impact on the electorate. The naval community knew the truth and were gagged. Furthermore the navy should never have accepted the conditions imposed under Relex including quick reporting arrangements, and the total media ban. Reith had used the navy as a political accessory.
The news blackout created some advantages for the government, but came at a cost. It had the ability to impress the electorate without alarming them as to the unpleasant details, in particular the suffering, despair and violence and deaths (3) of asylum seekers; Max Moore-Wilton and the Taskforce were able to operate unreported; News of boats SIEV 1 to 12 went unreported. The Operations failure was unknown. The disadvantages were: Australia was unable to promote the good work of the navy; or its hard line to people smugglers and asylum seekers.
Most commercial media operators supported Howard’s re-election campaign, and position on boat people. It was good business to do so. All business deals come at a cost, and the Coalition had promised to dismantle cross-media ownership laws.(67)
Patrick Walters, Editor for the Australian had been the steadiest critic of the governments handling of the Tampa. When he stumbled over evidence contradicting the government’s position on the ‘children overboard’ incident, he arranged for a reporter to research the matter. What followed broke the ‘children overboard scandal’.(68)
Whilst Howard ducked and weaved over the scandal, the vessel named SIEV X had sunk drowning 353 with the remaining 46 being rescued by a passing Indonesian fishing trawler. All previous information about Relex had been suppressed, Howard released most of the information about this vessel. It was not possible to prove exactly where the boat sunk, but again Howard claimed this had occurred in the Indonesian zone and therefore was the responsibility of the people smugglers and the Indonesian government. The aim of releasing this information was solely to divert attention from the children overboard scandal from which the government was trying to overcome. Howard would not falter at the last hurdle, when he was so close to victory and re-election. To further profit from the event, he refused to allow grieving relatives in Sydney to breach TSV permits and go to Indonesia and reunite with survivors.
John Howard went into the election without a single policy to improve the nation. The Liberal ‘dog pitch’ campaign manipulated the Tampa issue, and fear of invasion by terrorist boat people, to gain support in a show of leadership strength. Kym Beazley was clearly liked by the electorate. He undoubtedly won the debate of the two leaders coming into the election. He tried to bring ideas of improvement for the nation to the electorate, but was unable to publicise domestic issues health, tax and education through the press. No brownie points were gained from mostly supporting the government’s position on boat people. Any opposition was simply unpatriotic. Labor was struggling after the Tampa, but September 11 marked the end of any hope to win the upcoming election.
What has never been publicised was the cost of the six weeks of Operation Relex. General estimates put military costs at about $500 million, with $427 million for the Pacific Solution. As Marr states when it comes to defending the borders from boat people, money is no object.(69) Other costs cannot be so easily accounted for. In all 2390 people were repelled, with Relex successfully repelling 4 boats carrying 670 people. Australia was not responsible for the deaths of the 352 people on SIEV X, but the Australian Coastwatch made no attempt to find them either. Almost all of the refugees were found to be genuine. The 655 Afghani’s lost their right to protection with the liberation of the Taliban. Most Afghans returned home with assistance from the Australian Government. Some still remain in Camps in the Pacific which were supposed to be cleared long ago. Howard hoped the International community would solve the problem, and New Zealand accepted 186; Sweden 15; Denmark 6; Canada 8; Australia 1. The rest of the world believed the problem was Australia’s. It should be noted that in the ‘98-’01 term of office, the Howard government authorised the migration of nearly 2 million immigrants into Australia. (source DIMA)
In 2000 Norway accepted 10,000 refugees. The Stoltenberg government lost office to a right-winged coalition, who promised to cut the influx of foreigners into Norway. Europe moved to tighten border controls under the pressure of vast numbers – about 400,000 asylum seekers in 2001- and anti-immigration parties began transforming the political landscape.
Rewards for Rinnan kept pouring in from around the world. He claims not to be a hero, and fears there may be less rescues now. It is an unwritten law of the sea to rescue people. Following UNHCR criticism the government cut its funding by fifty per cent. The political neutrality of the armed forces was compromised to support a military campaign designed to re-elect the Prime Minister.
John Howard survived the revelations of the children overboard scandal. The Australian people continued to trust him as a leader and trust his strategy for border protection. Nothing had changed in public opinion for boat people since 1976.
The costs of the actions of the Howard Government is more than just an embarrassing reputation internationally, as the true cost is yet to be paid. John Howard claims to be a Burkean conservative, and should practice those philosophical principles. Howard is not a conservative for the following reasons. “Burkean prophesises that the nation’s institutions are an inheritance the present generation should not abandon, since they have been fashioned by the wisdom of the past, tested in adversity, and must be held in trust for those yet to be born”.(70) Howard’s is only conservative on occasions. The complete compromise of the traditional armed forced for domestic political uses is totally inappropriate. Howard had destroyed half a century of association with the United Nations of which Australia was a founding member. Rendering the definition of a refugee under the 1951 convention and protocols invalid. The list continues with Max Moore-Wilton destroying the impartiality of the Federal Public Service. The cut of judicial process has effectively lopped away an arm of government. Howard’s method of wedge politics has incrementally radically redistributed power within Australian society. Furthermore Howard’s exploitation of Australia’s xenophobia and racism in the Tampa affair was the lowest ethical position the Government could take.
This book is excellently researched. Much of the information in this book was not sourced from reports which should have existed, but very often did not. So Marr and Wilkinson interviewed many people personally. The list of these people is remarkable. There was incredible detail in this book, far too much to include in an essay of this length. It is impossible to remain unaffected by the inhumanity of the whole Tampa event. Yet I feel like a better Australian for having studied the issue in detail.
Marr, D and Wilkinson, M, 2003, Dark Victory, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, p.3
Marr, D and Wilkinson, M, 2003, Dark Victory, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, p.5
Marr, D and Wilkinson, M, 2003, Dark Victory, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, p.44 source: Borderline by Peter Mares
http:// www.onlineopinion.com.au/2001/Oct01/Suter.htm 2/5/03
http:// www.onlineopinion.com.au/2001/Oct01/Harper.htm 2/5/03
http:// www.onlineopinion.com.au/2001/Oct01/Harper.htm 2/5/03 source: DIMA
Marr, D and Wilkinson, M, 2003, Dark Victory, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, p.36
Marr, D and Wilkinson, M, 2003, Dark Victory, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, p.74