Rudd on the boat people

The first duty of any government is the defence of its citizenry, and that is why border protection is vital to Australia.

It is easy to argue that the boat people are few in number, desperate and helpless, simple seekers of shelter; they pose no threat. But those who exhibit this misplaced compassion tend to forget one very elementary fact about Australia: it is girt by sea.

We are an island, with a mainland coastline some 36 000 km in length, and if you add in the offshore islands that nearly doubles to 60 000 km. Global warming and the consequent rise in sea levels may reduce this quite a bit, but we will remain horribly vulnerable, and only the most severe policies of deterrence can keep us from the hordes who see us, rightly, as the most desirable destination on earth. Pauline Hanson is absolutely right: we are in imminent danger of being swamped, being overrun, losing the Australian way of life forever. Only ceaseless and indeed ruthless vigilance can keep us safe.

Now the bleeding hearts, the latte sippers, the chardonnay quaffers in their elite little ivory towers scoff at the very suggestion. Nonsense, they lisp, it could never happen. But it could; in fact, it did.

The invasion of boat people that began in 1788 was not stopped and it destroyed the Australian nation – many hundreds of Australian nations, as it happened. There was resistance, but it was too little and too late. The Australians who survived the onslaught were reduced to fringe dwellers, their lifestyle and culture crushed by the sheer weight of the newcomers.

So it did happen once, perhaps even more than once, for there is some evidence that those who were invaded in 1788 themselves displaced earlier settlers. The fear of boat people is not a fantasy: it is based on history. It may be atavistic, motivated at least partly by subconscious feelings of guilt, but this does not make it irrational, far less unreal.

Okay, all the above is not meant to be taken entirely seriously. But it is at least an attempt to explain what is otherwise pretty much inexplicable. Why do Australians, normally a laid-back and tolerant, if not welcoming, people, suddenly turn in to foaming paranoiacs when a few leaky craft bearing the wretched of the earth appear off our shores?

Certainly the program of propaganda and brainwashing run by the last government did not help: asylum seekers were transformed by a longstanding campaign into queue jumpers, disease carriers, drug runners, potential terrorists and eventually child murderers. Importantly, they were locked away far from public gaze for fear that actual contact might allow the voters to discover that they were, actually, fellow human beings, albeit ones in urgent need of help.

As long as they were seen by the public as enemy aliens, locking them away was a perfectly natural reaction. And it reinforced the other line pushed by the government: their arrival in Australia was an illegal act, deserving of a just retribution. After all, if they weren’t criminals, they wouldn’t be in prison, would they.

The inculcation of suspicion and hatred was pursued assiduously by John Howard and Philip Ruddock, his vampiric immigration minister, but even they must have been astonished at their success when the Tampa hove into view in August 2001, perfectly timed to revive their flagging fortunes in an election year. Howard’s announcement that none of the asylum seekers rescued by the Norwegian freighter would be allowed to touch the sacred soil of Australia was greeted with near-universal howls of bloodthirsty approval.

Polls showed that more than 80 per cent of Australians agreed with the government’s stance; indeed the major complaint on the talkback radio programs was that the government wasn’t tough enough: a depressing number of callers wanted incoming asylum seekers to be sunk by the navy at sea or, if they reached land, abandoned to starve to death.

The ferocity of the response spooked the opposition. Initially, Kim Beazley offered the government full support, but when he realised that Howard’s Border Protection Bill abolished the rule of law altogether – all those engaged in border protection were to be guaranteed immunity from prosecution for any crime, up to and including murder – he drew back. For this he was branded a wimp and a wuss. And, of course, he lost the election anyway.

Every polling booth was festooned with a banner proclaiming Howard’s memorable slogan: ‘We will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come here.’ Exit polls quoted voters using lines like: ‘Yes, I voted for Johnny because he knows how to handle the towelheads.’

It was certainly one of the less edifying periods in Australia’s democratic history, but, perhaps, it should not have been the shock that it was to many. After all, our history shows that the fear of invasion by sea has been with us since colonial times, when the French navy was snooping around the coastline, apparently in direct competition with the English.

Later artillery emplacements were built to repel the supposed threat of a Russian invasion; Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour and Fort Nepean near Melbourne are tourist attractions today, but they were a serious part of the defence effort in their time. During the First World War the feared aggressors were the Germans, and in the Second they were joined by the Japanese, whose boats actually invaded Australian waters, if not the mainland. In the postwar years, Asians in general were seen as the danger; drawn by the promise of our boundless plains and propelled southward by the irresistible force of gravity, they seemed destined to engulf us. If it wasn’t the Indonesians, it would be the Vietnamese – but looming over both was China, the very embodiment of the Yellow Peril, which had combined with the Red Menace to produce a multicoloured nightmare.

Of course none of these countries was capable of mounting an actual invasion resulting in the subjugation and occupation of our wide brown land, but this wasn’t the point: the idea of the Threat from the North was so firmly ingrained in our collective subconscious that it could not be countered by mere logic. And so, when Howard and his strategists needed a divisive scare campaign, they didn’t have to look far.

With a mere change of emphasis, border protection, previously confined to the odd story about illegal Indonesian fishing boats, became a first-order defence issue, even a matter of national survival. To listen to the prime minister holding forth in parliament, you would have thought that the combined forces of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun were in charge of an armada just a day’s sail from our sacred shores. In the circumstances, no response could be characterised as too extreme.

What was described as a ‘wall of steel’ was thrown up to protect our coast. Exactly what it consisted of was unclear: that was, we were told, an operational matter, the subject of the gravest national security laws. Any boat that ran into the wall was to be emptied of all occupants, and they were to be treated to what was wonderfully named the ‘Pacific Solution’.

The name conjures up images of white tropical beaches fringed by coconut palms, with languorous maidens dancing to the sound of ukuleles. In fact, it meant that two nearby governments (the opportunist mendicants of Papua New Guinea and the bankrupt money-launderers of Nauru) had been bribed to allow concentration camps to be built on their land where the boat people could be incarcerated out of sight and out of mind. Needless to say, these prisons were closed to the media, though one enterprising reporter did penetrate the razor wire at Nauru and described the conditions as hellish. Philip Ruddock agreed enthusiastically and added with a satisfied smile that conditions in the detention centres on Australian soil were much the same.

This was not surprising: their administration had been turned over to a private firm called Australasian Correctional Management, a subsidiary of the American Wackenhut Corporation, which makes its money from running prisons. Its avowed principle is to punish the inmates as much as possible, and it seems to have found no resistance to taking the same approach in its Australian operation. After all, to all intents and purposes the asylum seekers were treated as prisoners, so what was the problem?

Despite, however, the best efforts of the Australian Immigration Department to trick and entrap the petitioners into some inadvertent statement that would justify their rejection, some – quite a lot, in fact: indeed, the vast majority – were eventually found to be genuine refugees. So rather than accepting them as permanent residents, it was necessary to shift the goal posts once again. The solution was the Temporary Protection Visa (TPV), a piece of psychological torture designed to make the victims feel that the whole process had not really been worth it and that they might as well just give up.

A TPV gave a right of residence for three years (after which the holder had to go through the entire rigmarole again), but that was about all it gave. There was no access to Newstart or any other Centrelink services, apart from what was termed a ‘special benefit’ whose eligibility rules put it beyond the reach of most. Importantly, holders could not attend government-sponsored English language programs. Cruellest of all was the provision that a TPV specifically ruled out any form of family reunion and that, if a holder left Australia to try and visit his wife and children, he might not be allowed back in.

This had one awful unintended consequence: the men who had previously risked the voyage to Australia, in the expectation that they could bring their families in by normal transport later, now felt they had no option but to bring their wives and children with them on the leaky boats if they ever wanted to see them again. From this perspective, Howard himself was the root cause of the ‘children overboard’ incident he so ruthlessly exploited.

But he showed not the slightest sign of remorse. Even with the 2001 election nailed down, Howard continued to push the issue as a key plank in the Liberal platform. After all, he could claim that it worked: in the next year there were few unauthorised arrivals and by the 2004 election the boats seemed to have stopped altogether. Changes in international conditions undoubtedly had a lot to do with it, but this did not stop Howard from taking the credit. And, of course, it was a splendid political wedge. The new generation of Labor voters may have demanded a less brutal approach (bleeding-heart, chardonnay-sipping do-gooders) but a lot of the old guard were still steeped in the fight-them-on-the-beaches tradition and could be counted in the ranks of Howard’s battlers.

The only problem was that there were a few softies in the Liberal ranks as well and by 2007 the so-called ‘doctors’ wives’ were becoming more vocal, and a minority of Howard’s own previously cowed backbench was articulating their concerns. Also, there had been a reality check: it turned out that almost all asylum seekers on board the Tampa had been accepted as refugees and, despite Howard’s promise, quietly settled in Australia. With defeat staring him in the face, Howard blinked: while border protection remained non-negotiable, conditions in the camps were relaxed, and women and children – at least some of them – were allowed to serve their time in the community.

With the door finally creaking open, the subsequent change of government seemed to promise a totally new regime in which reason and compassion would replace the fear and loathing of the previous dark decade. And the initial signs were good: Kevin Rudd wound up the Pacific Solution and abolished the hated TPVs. More of those in the mainland camps were released into the community and the assessment procedure was streamlined and improved; no longer did the inmates have to fear a waiting period of months or even years. It all seemed very promising – but then the boats started arriving again.

Actually, it wasn’t just in Australia. After a worldwide lull, asylum seekers were on the move again. There was a renewed surge from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the end of the war in Sri Lanka brought a wave of Tamils fearing retaliation from the victors. Push factors had a lot to do with it, but for the floundering Australian opposition, the equation was all too simple. Under the firm but fair Howard regime the boats had stopped; with wishy-washy, namby-pamby Rudd they were back. Post hoc ergo propter hoc and QED. Rudd was soft on border security and had put the nation in peril.

It was a dilemma for Labor, which once again found itself wedged by an issue it would far rather have avoided. Rudd’s initial response was to seek the cooperation of the Indonesians, through whose territory almost all the boat people passed. The problem was that Indonesia is not part of any international agreement on refugees or asylum seekers. It tolerates them as transients or, if they cannot find anywhere else to go, confines them in camps where conditions are often even worse than they were in Nauru. Officials of the UNHCR are able to assess their claims but even those accepted as refugees frequently languish in the camps for years. In the circumstances, the risky trip to Australia must look like a reasonable option, especially if the people smugglers assure them that they will be welcome there.

Rudd’s Indonesian Solution involved paying the government in Jakarta large sums of money to improve conditions in the existing camps and to build a few new ones. The Indonesians were also asked to crack down on the people smugglers, even to the extent of using their navy to intercept them while they were still in Indonesian waters. Meanwhile, the Christmas Island detention centre was beefed up to accommodate those who slipped through the net. The policy was sold in Australia as being ‘humane to asylum seekers, tough on people smugglers’, with the latter demonised by Rudd with phrases about the ‘absolute scum of the earth’ and ‘the vilest form of people on the planet’ who ‘should rot in hell’.

Given the interdependence of the two groups, the policy was always a contradiction in terms and was derided as such by both sides of the argument. While a rather reluctant Malcolm Turnbull took a hard line and promised to reintroduce some form of TPVs, the Liberal Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, said the asylum seekers should be admitted to Australia. Unexpectedly, he was joined by Paul Howes, the national secretary of the AWU, who called for a more reasoned and compassionate approach. Rudd fell back on one of his old tricks: he said that if he was being criticised by both the Left and the Right, he must be delivering good policy.

But almost immediately it became clear just how bad the policy actually was. The Oceanic Viking, an Australian Customs vessel, rescued seventy-eight Tamils from a leaky boat in international waters but inside the Indonesian search-and-rescue zone on 18 October 2009 and proceeded to the nearest port, which happened to be Tanjung Pinang. The Tamils, however, wanted to go to Australia: they refused to get off, and the Indonesians declined to force them to. The stalemate swiftly became a serious embarrassment for Jakarta, where proudly nationalist politicians wanted the Australian vessel out of its waters, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono even postponed a planned visit to Australia.

But the embarrassment was far greater in Canberra, where no-one had a clue what to do. To take the Tamils away again, even to the already over-crowded Christmas Island, would involve a huge flip-flop, backdown and loss of face, which Rudd was not prepared to cop. So eventually a deal was done: Australian officials promised the Tamils accelerated processing and resettlement, English lessons, help in contacting their families, daily consular access and, quite possibly, a new set of steak knives – the fine detail was kept secret. Incredibly, throughout the negotiations and even afterwards, Rudd insisted that the Tamils were not receiving any kind of special treatment. This was so obviously contrary to the facts that by the end of the process the Australian Prime Minister was looking not just mendacious but very stupid and even a touch insane.

And the repercussions went further. Another boat containing 256 Tamils was detained by the Indonesian navy at the port of Merak following a request from Australia. Again the Tamils refused to land unless they received the same treatment as those from the Oceanic Viking. But this time there were no desperate Australian officials around to negotiate a deal. Two days before Christmas, one of the Tamils, George Christin, died after eleven weeks aboard. Jakarta then demanded that Canberra assist with the processing and resettlement of the remaining 255, citing the Oceanic Viking model. Canberra politely but firmly declined. Indonesian officials then told their local media that cooperation with Australia over the issue was at an end.

Rudd’s Indonesian Solution was revealed as a total failure. As Mike Steketee put it in the Australian, ‘it does nothing to solve Australia’s refugee problem and to the extent that it encourages people to bypass Indonesia and sail directly for Australia, it has made it worse.’

But of course by international standards, Australia’s refugee problem is a trivial one: in the year 2008–09 the number of asylum seeker claims in Australia rose by about 33 per cent, to just 5304. Most of these came by air: just 992 arrived by boat, 0.0045 per cent of our present population. To regard such a figure as a threat is clearly irrational; to fly into a political panic or, worse still, encourage the population to indulge in an orgy of fear and loathing is almost psychotic, and those who follow this course should be instantly removed from power, if not from society as a whole.

But they’re not. Not only do we listen to them, we vote for them. It is part of our tradition, even of our heritage. We are, after all, girt by sea.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum has worked with the Australian, the Age, the Financial Review, the Sydney Morning Herald and numerous magazines, as well as the ABC, SBS, Channel Nine and Channel Ten. His books include the bestselling Mungo: The Man Who Laughs, Run Johnny Run: The Story of the 2004 Election and Poll Dancing: The Story of the 2007 Election.

More by Mungo MacCallum ›

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