Everybody's getting sick of stories of outrage

Robert Macklin
Canberra Times
Monday, 1 April 2002

WE ARE suffering, it seems, from outrage fatigue.

An elderly woman reader said yesterday, "I wish this whole children-overboard thing was over. I'm sick of it. It's all just politics."

She, like most us, prefers a quiet life. She wants her morning newspaper to reassure her that everying in Australia is really OK; that all the fuss of the last few months is "just politics".

Press and electronic news editors are not immune to the contagion. There comes a time when even they begin to feel punch-drunk from the constant barrage of little horrors emerging from the Howard Government, not least its leader.

Just consider - the Prime Minister's choice as Governor-General blames the victim of child abuse, then has an on-the-job epiphany; the Prime Minister's best mate slags a High Court judge with bogus documents from the Prime Minister's former driver, then apologises when he's exposed but continues as the PM's official representative in the NSW Liberal Party; the Prime Minister repeats a shocking canard about asylum-seekers during the election, isolates himself from the truth (maybe) then refuses to allow the men who covered up the truth to be questioned by the Senate.

The cup of outrage runneth over. It's just too much to encompass within our favoured perception of the way government works in this country. We want it all to go away so we can get on with our lives and think about pleasanter things.

Even Opposition Leader Simon Crean is beginning to sound slightly overwhelmed by it all. He has, quite properly, called for the Government to remove its ban on the questioning of the advisers in the offices of the former Defence Minister, Peter Reith, and the Prime Minister.

He has demanded that Reith also make himself available to the committee. But Crean seems almost resigned to the fact that it won't happen.

Chat shows like The Panel have abandoned politics in despair. Many writers of Letters to the Editor have given up the ghost.

At the same time, other news stories have made their presence felt. The terrible scam from the insurance companies who want community organisations to make up for their mistakes with scandalous public-liability premiums is a much more congenial story to the Australian psyche. We can all happily get angry with insurance companies and voracious lawyers.

The Sydney papers had the most wonderful sport with Kerry Chikarovski. They seemed to delight in torturing her to political death. And it had the added advantage of feeding the illusion that state politics is important. It disguises the fact that Australia's system of government is closer to a Prime Ministerial dictatorship than we are prepared to admit.

John Howard knows that our outrage fatigue is working for him. And if there were any doubt about the reality of it we need only consider a story that appeared in this paper last Saturday.

It was written by a Tony Kevin. He is no lightweight dilettante or radical propagandist but a former Australian Ambassador to Cambodia.

He wrote of the terrible tragedy that befell the 353 asylum-seekers who, during the election campaign, perished in the open sea south of the Sunda Strait when their vessel capsized and sank.

Of the 150 children aboard, only four survived.

When it sank, the vessel was only about 80km south of Java, so it might have been expected that it was not really Australia's problem, despite the fact that it was heading our way.

But as Kevin shows, Australian authorities knew about it and they were anxious to intercept the "illegals" as close to Indonesia as possible with a view to turning them back.

John Howard had ordered "saturation surveillance" of the area, including Orion aircraft patrolling as close as 30 nautical miles off Java.

Howard said, "We don't, in this nation, sink boats," then added, "Don't think for a moment that we're talking about acts of belligerence. But we're certainly talking about acts which are designed to deter and encourage deterrence and also to enhance the fact that we are quite properly endeavouring to discourage people from setting out in the first place."

It is clear, according to Kevin's research, that Australian authorities knew the overcrowded boat was leaving.

There is also, he says, an account from a survivor that during his hours in the water he had seen a big boat which shone floodlights on the water. The suggestion is that it was an Australian boat.

A spokesman for the Defence Department says the nearest Australian vessel, HMAS Arunta, was 425km south of the area. But if this is true, why was it so far away?

Kevin raised this and other pertinent questions which, in the worst possible scenario, would reveal that Australia stood aside while a foreseeable tragedy took place.

There has been no response. No-one wants to know.

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