John Howard’s stand on the Tampa is generally seen in retrospect as a political masterstroke that stopped the boats and helped him to secure the 2001 federal election. But to leaf through newspaper clippings from those intense days of late August and early September 2001 is to be reminded that his government took a high-stakes gamble and came close to losing.
“Refugee Deal a Shambles” was the Sunday Age headline on 2 September. A day earlier the Australian’s Paul Kelly described the government’s approach as an “inept saga of crisis management”, and found it astounding that Howard went into the drama “without any exit strategy”. Even after the asylum seekers had been transferred from the container ship to HMAS Manoora (together with another 228 asylum seekers intercepted on another vessel) there was still no solution in place.
The Liberal government had approached newly independent and still-traumatised East Timor in the midst of its first national elections, as well as coup-prone Fiji and the microstates of Kiribati, Palau and Tuvalu. Peter Reith eventually sealed a deal with a $20 million handshake on Nauru but, as HMAS Manoora was steaming from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, yet another obstacle arose: Justice Tony North of the Federal Court ordered the government to bring the asylum seekers to the Australian mainland, invoking the “ancient power of the Court … to protect people against detention without lawful authority”.
The North judgement was handed down on 11 September, hours before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. It was later overturned on appeal and, like many of the other details from the time, has now largely slipped from view.
It is important to recall what a high-wire act the Howard government was performing. Important to remember too the enormous cost of the Pacific Solution: not just the hundreds of millions of dollars taken directly from public funds, but the damage done to Australia’s international reputation, the undermining of the principle of rescue at sea, the dubious skewing of our foreign aid program, the politicisation of the military, the erosion of defence force morale and the long, drawn-out suffering of those refugees warehoused in Nauru and Papua New Guinea – most of whom ultimately became fellow Australians.
Some might see all this as a price worth paying to stop the boats and save lives by deterring other asylum seekers from setting out on such a dangerous voyage. But that is to assume Howard’s stand on the Tampa did stop the boats. In the four months after the Tampa affair (to the end of 2001), a further 12 suspected illegal entry vessels (SIEVs) arrived in Australian waters, carrying 2126 passengers between them. Yet another boat tragically failed to arrive: the so-called SIEV-X (‘X’ for unknown) sank en route and 353 asylum seekers drowned.
It is possible that the Tampa affair, the prospect of detention on Nauru and the SIEV-X disaster combined to deter some asylum seekers in Indonesia from risking the boat journey to Australia. Also, Indonesia intensified its efforts to break the smuggling rackets at this time, and the Taliban was driven from power in Kabul, which provided some prospect of return home for displaced Afghans.
In my view, however, the decisive factor in the fall-off in arrivals at the end of 2001 was the government’s success in using the Royal Australian Navy to force boats back to Indonesia. Four vessels – SIEVs 5, 7, 11 and 12 – carrying 502 asylum seekers between them, were sent back. News of these forced returns would have circulated quickly among those waiting to board boats in Indonesia and would have undermined the deals on offer from smugglers, no matter what outcomes they promised.
Does that mean returning boats is the policy that should be pursued today?
No, because it creates unconscionable risk to life. It increases the incentive for smugglers to send people to sea in the most unseaworthy vessels possible – vessels capable of making the journey in one direction only. History warns us that such a policy will lead to these flimsy boats being sabotaged to prevent forced return as soon as they are in sight of Australian territory, or an Australian warship or customs vessel. In his report into the fire that killed five people and injured dozens more aboard a boat intercepted at Ashmore Reef in April 2009, the Northern Territory Coroner found that some asylum seekers deliberately poured petrol on the decks and ignited the vessel because they were under the mistaken impression that the boat was going to be sent back to Indonesia.
A policy of turning back the boats is not an option in the immediate future in any case, as it would require active co-operation from the government in Jakarta. This is a remote prospect in the wake of tensions over live cattle exports and the earlier bungled handling of the Oceanic Viking affair. Indonesian officials saw Kevin Rudd’s insistence in October 2009 that Jakarta take responsibility for 78 asylum seekers rescued by the Australian customs vessel as evidence that Australia’s version of ‘burden sharing’ was heavily weighted to its own interests.
A decade on from the Tampa affair we are watching the Gillard government founder as it searches for a way to stop the boats. The response to the Tampa was a circuit-breaker for the Coalition, and Labor wants to find something similar, more in an effort to rescue its political future than out of any attempt to develop coherent policy.
Perhaps some version of the East Timor–PNG–Malaysia solution may eventually come to fruition, or perhaps the Coalition will win office at the next election and revive the Pacific Solution in Nauru.
It is doubtful that either policy will bring a permanent end to boat arrivals given the extent and intractability of the global refugee crisis. Other outcomes can be predicted with more certainty: whether detention is moved to Malaysia or Nauru or some other country, the financial and human costs will be enormous. We will try to act for a while as if the problem has gone away and our responsibility has been absolved, but stories of self-harm, mental illness and heartbreak will continue to filter through from this new “offshore place” to disturb our peace.
As happened in the wake of the Tampa, people of good conscience – both outside our major parties and within them – will highlight the problems and advocate change. Eventually the weight of evidence will influence public opinion and it will be acknowledged that the latest solution was no solution at all.
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