Another case of truth overboard?
November 15, 2003
The Howard Government's handling of the boatload of Kurdish asylum seekers who landed on Melville Island 11 days ago has all the elements of the "children overboard" affair of the 2001 election campaign. Only the context and consequences are different.
Consider the similarities. Both began with confused accounts by the authorities who first made contact with a boat of asylum seekers.
In both cases, "talking points" - media briefing notes - were relayed to ministers by public servants keen to please their political masters. In both cases, ministers seized on the one "fact" in the talking points that put the Government's actions in the best possible light. In both cases, those in a position to know the truth - naval personnel, for example - were gagged from speaking to the media.
Back in 2001, the "fact" was that the asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard, prompting an indignant John Howard to declare: "I don't want people like that in Australia." It provided the edge to his election slogan: "We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come." It helped win him the election.
This time, the "fact"' was that, having managed to slip through the net of Australia's comprehensive border protection regime and land on an island within sight of Darwin, the 14 Kurds made no claimto be refugees and no request for asylum.
It always beggared belief.
The day the boat arrived, the Government moved quickly to retrospectively remove Melville and more than 3000 other islands from Australia's migration zone. Despite this, if those on the boat had made such a claim, Australia would have been under a strong obligation to process their applications for refugee status.
In both cases, the fact turned out to be fiction. In both cases, the Government response to the public revelation of this was the same: it doesn't matter one jot. As Howard said yesterday: "It's quite irrelevant. I mean, it doesn't really matter."
While both cases involved bureaucratic sloppiness and ministerial ineptitude, both gave the Government the opportunity to again present itself as uncompromising and resolute on border protection - and to cast those who disagreed as wanting to "open the floodgates".
What is beyond question is that, after a respite of more than two years from regular boat arrivals, the Howard Government has ramped up its border protection policy to a new level (or a new low, as the regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees, Michel Gabaudan, described it this week).
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone insists there is no change in the policy, but the evidence is clear. While boats have been returned to Indonesia after being intercepted well away from Australia in open water, this is the first time a boat has been returned after asylum seekers set foot on an Australian territory - just 80 kilometres from the mainland.
Australia's policy was already far more punitive to those who attempt to arrive by boat than those who come by other means, denying them access to the Australian courts and consigning hundreds to years of family separation and offshore detention. Now it is suddenly, unapologetically, even tougher.
There is a second string to the new approach. While the regulations excising the islands from Australia's migration zone will eventually be disallowed in the Senate, the Government will use the tactic in future to ensure that if a boat does again make it to an island, it is not part of Australia's migration zone.
And the purpose? As always, to send a message to the people smugglers and those desperate or foolhardy enough to use them. As the Prime Minister told the ABC yesterday: "The point of our policy is to deter people from arriving here illegally. That's the starting point. That's what people have got to understand."
What is not clear is whether the issue will have the same potency with voters as in 2001.
So how did the truth go overboard? Robert Cook, a Tiwi islander, was on his morning walk when he saw the boat, Minasa Bone, "parked on the beach'' on Tuesday, November 4. When a group of islanders approached, the asylum seekers greeted them with three words: "Is this Australia?"
"Yeah, this is the Tiwi Islands," replied Gibson Farmer, chairman of the Milikapiti community management council.
The next morning, Vanstone was asked on ABC radio if the group had asked for asylum. "I don't have any advice on that," she replied.
Labor leader Simon Crean insists he asked the same question later that day during a briefing from Vanstone. Once again, she could not give an answer.
Crean complained that the briefing was "almost totally uninformative" and factually wrong when he asked Howard in Parliament about the condition of those on board.
The Prime Minister took the opportunity to attack Labor, which had, with the minor parties in the Senate, repeatedly disallowed regulations removing offshore islands from Australia's migration zone. The action, he said, made it "more difficult to protect Australia's borders from illegal immigration arrivals".
Four days later, Vanstone and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced that the boat had returned to Indonesia after being escorted back to international waters near that country. "The passengers of the Minasa Bone did not claim asylum in Australia," their statement said.
Both ministers repeated this claim in media interviews, with Downer later revealing that it had been included in the "talking points" sent to him by his department on Sunday, November 9, five days after the boat landed at Melville Island.
Interviewed on the Nine Network's Today show 48 hours later, Downer said: "Now, we don't know a great deal about these people; they didn't claim asylum in Australia while they were in Australian waters," he said. The next day, sitting in the Kalideres detention centre in Jakarta, one of the Turkish Kurds was asked whether they had expressed a desire for asylum to Australian officials.
"Thousands of times, thousands," said Abuzer Goles. "I begged them, I pleaded down on my knees. They sent a Turkish interpreter and I pleaded with him saying I'll do anything not to be sent back.We spent four days on the water, 10 days without sleep, it nearly killed us. I'm human, I'm a human being. I'm a refugee." He then broke down, crying.
Late on Thursday, the Government released a letter from Ed Killesteyn, the chairman of its People Smuggling Task Force, admitting the factual mistake, but insisting "it had no bearing on the way in which the vessel was handled".
That afternoon, Vanstone called a press conference - not to correct the record, but to attack Crean. He had argued the claims of the 14 should have been speedily assessed, with any "who are not refugees returned to where they came from". She accused him of wanting to tear up the Pacific Solution and "open the floodgates".
Killesteyn's letter revealed that, during interviews on November 6, three days before Vanstone and Downer released their statement, some of those on the boat expressed the wish to become Australian citizens and spoke of the difficulties facing them as Kurds in Turkey.
The letter gives a telling insight into how the Government gives higher priority to "sending a message" of determent than considering its obligations as a signatory to the UN's refugee convention.
It makes plain that the initial comments made by the asylum seekers "usually lead to a more in-depth interview with each individual to determine the substance behind the words each has used".
But it added: "Such a process was not pursued in these circumstances because arrangements were being made by the People Smuggling Task Force to provide that opportunity through either the regional co-operation arrangements or offshore processing. That action started from the time Melville Island was effectively excised."
As the UNHCR's Gabaudan saw it, the asylum seekers were denied this basic right of follow-up questioning without any consultation with the UNHCR or any guarantee that their claims would be properly assessed. That is why he went public.
Government officials say his concern is misplaced. They say there is an agreement with Indonesia for returns that provide for the UNHCR to process claims and for asylum seekers to be under the care of the International Organisation for Migration.
But there is no written or formal memorandum of understanding between Australia and Indonesia on boat returns, raising the question of whether Indonesia is happy for boats to be returned from places such as Melville Island, 80 kilometres from Darwin.
Vanstone and Downer portrayed the boat's return as evidence of the success of the Government's "regional co-operation model" with Indonesia. Howard insists Indonesia "knew in advance of what we were going to do and did not express any formal objection".
But some Indonesian ministers and officials have expressed resentment and one official, Ade Dahlan, asserted Indonesia should not be used as a "dumping ground" by Australia.
Indonesia expert Greg Fealy, of the Australian National University, says the episode will add to the sentiment that "Australia is not behaving in a good neighbourly way" but is unlikely to damage bilateral relations.
The domestic significance of the episode is threefold. First, it is a reminder of how hard the Coalition will run on border protection. Second, it revives the issue of honesty in dealing with the public. Vanstone said yesterday: "A lie, of course, is something where someone tells you a mistruth and they know it to be a mistruth. Now. that clearly hasn't happened." Finally, it is a sign that the Government is unlikely to yield on other asylum seeker questions.
The most pressing of these is whether those who have temporary protection visas, most of them Afghans and Iraqis, will be given permanent residency and allowed to reunite with family members, including those in detention on Nauru.
This issue will be highlighted in Canberra on November 23-24 when voluntary organisations across the nation assemble with TPV holders and some of their employers to thank those who have supported them and present their case for permanent status.
National Party whip John Forrest recently put the case for a more compassionate approach to TPV-holders in the Coalition party room. Other government MPs are sympathetic, but reluctant to speak out.
One Liberal who declined to be named said it was clear Australia had failed to meet its obligations in the case of those who landed on Melville Island. "If we assessed those 14 and listened to their stories, how is that going to change the situation?" he asked. "Are we going to see a flood of people coming down? I don't think so."
This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/11/14/1068674382737.html