The Tampa Post-Mortem

David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, Dark Victory, Allen & Unwin, 2003.

In Dark Victory, leading Australian investigative reporters David Marr and Marian Wilkinson chronicle in awesome detail the period August to November 2001, when Australian gunboats kept asylum seekers from Australia’s shores, risking our nation’s democratic values, reputation as the land of the fair go, and the refugees’ dignity and lives. The authors examine closely the border control policy of the John Howard Liberal–National Government, supported by then Opposition Labor Party leader Kim Beazley, in the lead-up to the 10 November federal election. It reveals fundamental moral and political values of Australia’s political leaders, both Liberal and Labor, and how they and senior public servants manipulated the desperation of refugee boat people to capture votes. In a supreme irony, nearly 900 of those barred from Australia were eventually found to be genuine refugees, including 550 Iraqis fleeing a regime against which Australia later assisted in over-throwing.

The account follows what happened to the passengers and crew aboard the KM Palapa and thirteen Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels, numbered SIEV 1 to 12 and SIEV X, as they left Indonesia in the hope of reaching peace and security in Australia. Their desperation to leave such murderous regimes as those of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq is forcefully indicated by the risks taken by non-swimmers, elderly people and young families with babies, in overcrowded boats in poor condition, inadequately equipped to cope with rough ocean seas, and with limited provision of food, water, toilet facilities and life-jackets. The authors take us through Operation Relex, the government show of force to frighten asylum seekers and people-smugglers from trying to land in Australia.

The container ship Tampa and its captain Arne Rinnan did the right thing according to Norwegian law, age-old maritime custom and a request from Australian rescue authorities, in picking up 438 survivors, including 43 children, at risk of death at sea following engine failure on the Palapa — only to have the Australian Government, led by Prime Minister Howard, Defence Minister Peter Reith and Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, go to extraordinary lengths to evade another traditional maritime custom and allow survivors of a sea rescue to disembark at the nearest port, in this case Christmas Island. The Federal Government finished with international mud on its face, but Arne Rinnan (with a pageful of awards and medals) along with many of the refugees, in the end, happily settled in New Zealand. As the authors note:

Howard said of the people rescued by the Tampa and sent for processing to Nauru, ‘We have always stood ready to take our fair share’. In the end, New Zealand took 186, Australia took one.

The ‘children overboard’ affair was a dramatic Operation Relex episode which showed some navy personnel at their best and some leading politicians, aided by senior public servants, at their worst.
SIEV 4, the Olong, which had set out from Sumatra for Christmas Island with 223 asylum seekers aboard, was described as ‘marginally seaworthy with no lifeboats’. Norman Banks, experienced commander of the Australian Navy frigate Adelaide, who was ordered to intercept the Olong and prevent its passengers reaching Christmas Island, was conscious of the dilemma:

How could naval officers square their duty to render assistance to those in distress at sea — even illegal [sic] immigrants — with orders to turn their overcrowded boats back to Indonesia?

After repeated orders for Olong to turn back, Adelaide eventually fired a total of twenty-eight warning shots around the boat in the middle of the night to encourage it to obey orders, causing (unsurprisingly) terror and chaos. Then a naval boarding party transferred to Olong so it could be towed away from Australian waters.

But it was hopeless. When the boat started to roll heavily, panic-stricken passengers started jumping into the water. At this critical time, Banks was phoned for a report by Brigadier Mike Silverstone of Northern Command, Darwin, who noted during the conversation: ‘Men thrown over side. 5, 6, or 7’. Later, Marr and Wilkinson report:

Silverstone added the word ‘child’ to the note believing, he would say later, that Commander Banks told him a child about 5, 6, or 7 years old had been thrown over the side.

So started the drama which would ‘embroil the Australian Defence Force in its biggest political trauma since the Vietnam War’. Although military personnel were questioning the source and validity of the claim that children were being thrown into the sea, Ruddock publicly called them ‘the most disturbing practices I’ve come across in public life’; Howard said, ‘we’re not a nation that’s going to be intimidated by this kind of behaviour’ and ‘I don’t want people like that in Australia’; while the Herald Sun ran the headline: Overboard: boat people throw children into ocean. It was never true and the navy knew it was never true, but the myth was maintained throughout the election period, then quietly dropped without any apology to the asylum seekers concerned.

Although some senior members of the armed forces come out of this period with distinction, the military’s hands were ‘not entirely clean’, cooperating with government in hiding the truth from the public. The Defence Force public relations department ran a campaign to ‘ensure that we adequately and effectively communicate government messages’, journalists were not allowed to quiz military officers, any press enquiry had to be diverted to Minister Reith’s office where it was stonewalled, and the military were instructed not to produce any ‘personalising or humanising images’, i.e. photographs, of asylum seekers.

Marr and Wilkinson write that neither Reith nor Howard seemed keen to get to the bottom of the children overboard issue which, although the story died down, made its ‘indelible mark’, seeming to establish for some members of the community damning proof of the ‘base instincts’ of these ‘illegals’ from which the Howard Government saw itself as saving Australia.

In the case of SIEV X, the lives of 353 asylum seekers were lost only thirty hours after their boat left Sumatra. It was not surprising. There were only one hundred lifejackets for the 400 people crammed on board, so overcrowded that the vessel was lying very low in the water and twenty-four of them immediately hailed a passing fishing boat and returned to shore. Others wanted to, but missed out. Arguments flared about safety; there was no functioning radio and the engine was ‘dodgy’ and packed up in heavy seas, with the boat immediately disintegrating and sinking. It was a tragedy waiting to happen. The smuggler Abu Quassey served six months in a Jakarta prison — but only for visa offences.

Various Indonesian and Australian authorities are shown to have known about the SIEV X smuggling operation and the grossly overcrowded boat starting its journey, with an immigration department note to the People Smuggling Taskforce referring to ‘some risk of vessels in poor condition and rescue at sea’, but all denied any knowledge of the vessel’s getting into trouble and sinking, or of passengers struggling in the water. Even here, however, Marr and Wilkinson don’t let the Federal Government get off scot-free:

Australia did not kill those who drowned on SIEV X but their deaths can’t be left out of the reckoning entirely. When those in peril on the sea are asylum seekers, Australia hesitated to rescue. Not refused, hesitated.

They argue:

In better times … the failure of an equally overcrowded boat to arrive at Christmas Island … would have set off an immediate search and rescue operation. Not in late 2001. Canberra kept hoping somebody else would take these people off their hands.

The authors point out that the purpose of Operation Relex was not search and rescue but was a military operation to stop boats containing asylum seekers and turn them back, away from Australia.

Democratic processes were undermined when elected members of parliament and senior public servants, all paid by the taxpayer, aimed to prevent the public knowing what was happening in their name by such devices as not allowing ‘humanising images’ of asylum seekers to be seen; refusing journalists access to Defence Force personnel involved in peacetime operations; and sophisticated ‘spin’ on reports of human tragedy to manipulate, or hide, the truth. You are left wondering if there are any orders public servants and defence personnel would refuse to obey on principle.

At the end of this period, Australia had shut its doors to 2390 people at a cost of $500 million plus large military and other expenditures, even though many of those locked out were in due course considered to be genuine refugees. This thoroughly researched study shows this rich country’s Government — unopposed by the Opposition Labor Party — expected to gain votes by treating the most vulnerable people without respect, consideration or humanity.


Harry Throssell is a journalist and author for on-line journal, Levellers Essays.

Categorised: Arena Magazine Feature

Comments closed

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.