Books: Dark Victory
12 March 2003
A disturbing account of the Tampa affair takes us into the heart of a government machine gone mad and bad in the midst of an election campaign, writes National Affairs Editor Tony Wright.
The first story I wrote for a newspaper concerned a rescue at sea. It was January 1968, and a freighter had suffered a fire off Australia's southern coast. Another ship was directed to take off the crew and in the early hours of the morning, the survivors - some of them burned - were landed at the western Victorian port of Portland. Ambulances waited, locals hurried through the summer night to the wharf with blankets and food, the Missions to Seaman building threw open its doors and representatives of all sorts of authorities bustled about, making sure there was no delay in the mercy operation.
This was the way things had always been. Australia was an island, the sea was cruel. The ship from which people had been rescued, I believe, was Norwegian, although it would not have mattered where it came from. Not in those days.
We know now that this was not the way things would always be. The decision by the federal government in August 2001 to deny safe harbour to a Norwegian ship named the Tampa, which had rescued 438 people from a crippled boat in the Indian Ocean, changed everything. It set in train a series of events that will forever define Australia's entry to the 21st century.
Prime Minister John Howard also ensured that whatever he has done previously, and whatever he will do in future, he will be defined forever by a potent one-liner: "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."
He won a third term for his government with that line. He eventually stopped asylum-seekers arriving in Australian waters on leaking boats. But he and those assisting him tossed much overboard in the doing of it. In 20 years, historians and ordinary Australians will most likely look back aghast at the months that ended the year 2001.
Thanks to authors David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, those who care to look do not have to wait 20 years. In their book Dark Victory, Marr and Wilkinson have pulled together the whole confronting tale of how, through iron will, subterfuge, disregard for the conventions of a civilised seafaring nation, the misuse of secret intelligence and the use of military force against the helpless, the federal government closed its borders in the quest for votes.
Through forensic research, the authors have managed to build a story that both thrills and appals, yet they have managed to do it by stating facts in a largely dispassionate manner.
Those of us who followed closely the saga of the Tampa, the bribing of Nauru and Papua New Guinea in the cause of the "Pacific Solution", the use of navy ships to interdict rotting, overloaded people-smuggling boats, the children-overboard affair and the horror of the sinking of the SIEV X, imagined we knew most of it.
Marr and Wilkinson show we didn't. They take us aboard the Tampa, the asylum-seekers' boats and the naval ships and - through numerous interviews - inside the minds of those on board. They place human faces on desperate Afghanis and Iraqis - people whom the government dehumanised by keeping them far away from reporters and photographers and almost everyone else. They take us into the conference rooms of the bureaucrats who often willingly confused the public interest with their masters' demands. They take us, indeed, into the heart of a government machine gone mad and bad in the midst of an election campaign.
They find few heroes. There is the cool Norwegian captain Arne Rinnan and his crew, showered with international awards for their efforts in saving 438 souls, despite being treated as pariahs by Australian authorities. There are young Australian sailors prepared to leap into the water to save women and children from drowning, only to discover photographs of their efforts misused by politicians trying to prove that asylum-seekers had thrown their children overboard. There are a few senior military figures who tried fruitlessly to correct lies being told to the public.
But that's about it. Labor's Kim Beazley emerges as compliant, outgunned by Howard from the start and beaten into submission by public fury when he took his one hard stand - to use Labor's numbers to deny the government its draconian Border Protection Bill.
Polls and the election result showed that most Australians supported Howard through it all. Marr and Wilkinson show precisely what Australia supported. They draw a deeply disturbing picture. The question is whether many Australians are yet prepared to look at it, for fear it might be a mirror.
Dark Victory, by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, Allen and Unwin, $29.95