TALL TALES, BUT TRUE

Kristie Dunn
Eureka Street
April 2003

Dark Victory, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson. Allen & Unwin, 2003. ISBN 1 86508 939 7, RRP $29.95

X:URL: http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/articles/0304dunn.html

In the aftermath of the 2001 election, Wilh Wilhelmsen, proprietor of the Norwegian shipping line that owned the MV Tampa, wrote to John Howard. After congratulating him on his re-election, Wilhelmsen suggested that Howard owed him a case of fine Australian red for his role in Howard's Dark Victory. He received no wine, and no reply.

Wilh Wilhelmsen was not the only one to miss out. At the Liberal victory party on election night, there was an unexpected appearance by another key player-the Race Card. As the Race Card (aka one of the satirists from the ABC TV program the Election Chaser) was escorted out of the room to frosty silence, he yelled: 'I've been with him the whole campaign and now you're kicking me out. No respect. I tell you what, they just use you.'

A year later, Howard farewelled his Departmental Secretary, Max Moore-Wilton, who was retiring after six and a half years of service, and who had been a conspicuous participant in Howard's celebrations at the Liberal victory party on election night. Howard praised Moore-Wilton for his years of loyal service, and his determination to make the public service 'responsive to the wishes and the goals of the elected government'. Moore-Wilton had led the purge of the public service in 1996. His approach to the Westminster tradition of an apolitical public service, able to offer 'frank and fearless' advice to government, was summed up in his comment: 'there are a number of people who have confused frank and fearless with just being a bloody nuisance.' He left Canberra to become executive chairman and CEO of the newly privatised Sydney Airport Corporation.

They say God is in the detail. So too is the truth about the Tampa. It has taken 18 months for journalists David Marr and Marian Wilkinson to piece together the tale of how a sinking fishing boat became the pawn in a campaign that converted a likely loss of power into a conclusive election victory in a little under three months. Thorough research, careful composition and a deft use of light and shade turn what is an inherently fascinating story into a gripping, ripping yarn-alive with detail and rich in analysis. And the authors would be the first to recognise the irony: that the book's release is likely to be overshadowed by the War on Terror-the crucible that, in the course of those highly charged days and weeks, transformed fear first into anger and then into votes.

If this were a children's book, you'd be hard-pressed to get the kids to sleep. 'Just one more chapter,' they'd clamour. 'What happens next?' Others (notably Peter Mares in his revised Borderline, 2002) have written in depth about the various strands-Tampa, the 'Pacific solution', Operation Relex and the aptly termed 'raft' of legislation-that make up the Howard government's 'border protection' strategy. But not until Dark Victory have we had such a comprehensive and compelling narrative about how those strands came together to lead the Coalition to victory in late 2001.

The story starts with the first sighting of the Tampa by the 438 people on board the stricken vessel Palapa, and ends at the Wentworth hotel in Sydney where, to thunderous applause, John Howard had already started to deny the role played by the Tampa in his re-election. 'Those who will seek to record wrongly that we only began to recover late in August', he said, 'forget the great turning point of the Aston by-election, and the way in which our party responded to the concerns of the Australian people in many areas'. As the authors of this book argue, however, no concern was as great as the fear of invasion by people on boats, and no response was more carefully and strategically planned.

As each chapter unfolds, the drama of those days is re-created in all its intensity. We experience again the tension of the stand-off between the government and the captain of the Tampa, Arne Rinnan, while 438 people lived, ate and slept between the containers on the open deck. We are confronted by the extent of the government's calculations to avoid the operation of the Migration Act, under which it was obliged to bring ashore the people on the Tampa, detain them and allow them to make applications for asylum. We are reminded of the long weekend and late nights in the Federal Court, when legal arguments were developed on the run, and of how Justice North's decision of September 11 that the government was unlawfully detaining the asylum seekers on the Tampa was overshadowed by the events that followed only hours later in New York and Washington. And we hear that fateful congruence invoked in the argument of the government's barrister, David Bennett QC, two days later: that in the wake of such terrorist activity, the long-standing distinction between the government's power to deter enemy aliens and its power with respect to friendly aliens was 'quaint and old-fashioned'. As Peter Reith said, more directly, on 3AK that same day: 'You've got to be able to manage people coming into your country - otherwise it can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities.'

These early chapters confirm much of what was suspected but not known about the Tampa crisis. We find out the details of the pressure exerted on the captain of the Tampa, Arne Rinnan, including threats of prosecution for people smuggling. We get confirmation of the policies of isolation of the Tampa in order to prevent the Australian public from empathising with the asylum seekers' plight. And most significantly, we learn how slow the government was to act on its intelligence information. It waited more than 24 hours from when the Coastwatch first spotted the Palapa, 'dead in the water', to issue the announcement that brought the Tampa to the rescue-a deliberate delay that would come to mark the government's approach to subsequent rescue operations.

It is the little things that get you. Like the fact that many of those who braved the storms and the overcrowded ships had never seen a boat before, and could not swim. As one of the survivors said: 'I saw boats on the television or in the movies but in Afghanistan it's a landlocked country. It doesn't have boat or ship.' Like the description of the asylum seekers, who had just been transferred from the Tampa to the Manoora, standing on the deck with numbers around their necks before being shepherded below to the 'tank deck' that would become their makeshift home for the next fortnight until they reached Nauru. And that many of those who were eventually allowed up to the open deck-and daylight-eight or ten days into the journey could not stand on the hot deck: it burnt their feet. All their belongings, including their shoes, had been left to sink with the Palapa.

These glimpses of human anguish form a counterpoint to the 'bigger' story, unfolding in briefings and memos and meetings in the landlocked capital on the other side of the country. The government's response to the Tampa 'crisis' was co-ordinated by the People Smuggling Taskforce, made up of senior bureaucrats from the key departments, and headed by Max Moore-Wilton's 'number two', Jane Halton. Moore-Wilton, the operation's mastermind, told Marr that he was receiving his orders from higher up still. This was the body charged with making sure that Howard fulfilled his promise: 'that boat will never land in our waters-never.' Still in operation six weeks later, after the Tampa had left Australian waters, the taskforce became the heart of the ensuing military operation-known as Operation Relex-to turn the boats back. And the navy was its front line.

The concept underpinning Operation Relex was displayed at polling stations all around the country on 11 November: 'We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.' Empowered and protected by the new Border Protection Act, navy vessels were employed in the Indian ocean to intercept SIEVs (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels) and tow them back to Indonesian waters.

As with all military campaigns, control of information was its key weapon, and truth its first casualty. The existence of the taskforce was barely known. In accordance with a code unprecedented in peacetime, all information about Operation Relex was controlled by Minister Reith's office. Neither those in command of the operation, nor those carrying it out, were allowed to speak to the media or to the public. Footage of interceptions was not to be released, and direct instructions were given by Reith's press secretary to the defence department that no 'personalising or humanising images' of the asylum seekers were to be taken. Canberra was 'shut tight'. As Marr and Wilkinson observe, this information blackout came at some cost to the government. Footage of navy vessels intercepting fishing boats would have been a much more effective deterrent to potential asylum seekers than the Department of Immigration's infamous brochures warning of dangerous snakes. But it was not to the outside world that the government was trying to sell its 'tough on boat people' message. It was to the Australian electorate.

No-one-least of all the ALP-was surprised when John Howard called an election within weeks of his government's victory in the Federal Court and the events of September 11. International insecurity and the manufactured air of an invasion of boats was a vote-winning combination. In an environment in which Australia was mobilising its troops to go to war against Afghanistan, the deployment of those same troops in the war against illegal immigration seemed appropriate, even necessary. The fact that the boats were filled with those fleeing the regime that the US and its allies were planning to invade did not seem to matter. As Marr and Wilkinson put it, Howard combined 'absolute opposites' into a 'single potent campaign'-'race wrapped in a flag'-with the help of such experts in wedge politics as the former Northern Territory CLP's Chief Minister Shane Stone and his pollster Mark Textor.

Throughout all this, Kim Beazley hovers in the background, a looming yet insubstantial figure. This is not his story, but it is, as Marr and Wilkinson point out, a story that relied on his co-operation. Without the ALP's support, the post-Tampa legislation, a set of bills that the government had previously but unsuccessfully introduced to parliament, would never have been passed. Among other things, the legislation authorised the use of force to turn back boats on the high seas, provided immunity from prosecution for the use of force in such situations, narrowed the definition of a refugee and the criteria for the issuing of a protection visa, excised certain parts of Australia (including Christmas Island and Ashmore reef) from the operation of the Migration Act and sought to restrict access to the courts, both for failed visa applicants and for those seeking to challenge the validity of the Migration Act. A separate bill was also designed to prevent Liberty Victoria and Eric Vadarlis from pursuing the Tampa litigation in the High Court.

Far from being a 'carping opposition', the ALP presented almost no challenge to the government's actions, save for its refusal to pass the original Border Protection Bill which it rightly recognised as an affront to democracy and the rule of law. No questions were asked in parliament about the welfare of those on board the Tampa, or about the detail of the arrangements made for their accommodation on the Manoora and subsequently on Nauru. Had such questions been asked, we would have known that the facilities described by Howard in parliament were not to be offered to the asylum seekers. Instead they were kept in the bottom of the ship on the 'tank deck' where the vehicles and tanks were normally kept. Similarly, the detail of the horse-trading that resulted in a tent city being constructed on Nauru, and the allegations of forced removal of people from the Manoora to Nauru, were left to tenacious journalists to uncover. The Opposition just wanted everyone to stop talking about boats. As Hansard records, Senator Schacht summed up its position at the time: 'we are supporting [the legislation] ... to get it off the agenda and to concentrate on the issues on which we can win the election.'

But people kept talking (not least because the government wouldn't let the issue die) and the boats kept coming-12 altogether. Some were repaired, towed back and left in Indonesian waters. Others, like SIEV X, sank, claiming 353 lives. The government's response was to distance itself from the tragedy, claiming repeatedly that the boat had sunk in Indonesian waters. After reviewing the evidence, Marr and Wilkinson conclude that 'it was impossible for SIEV X to have sunk in Indonesian waters'. Wherever it sank, it seems clear from Marr and Wilkinson's sources that, at the very least, Australia had reason to believe that the boat was on its way. When surveillance flights failed to find it, though, no-one was concerned. As the authors put it, the atmosphere of border protection and the context of a military campaign had blunted humanitarian concerns. 'The failure of a boat to arrive did not trigger an alarm that a human tragedy might be unfolding. It was just one less boat to worry about.'

The SIEV X case was not the only one in which humanitarian concerns were subsumed by the imperatives of border protection. Under the internationally recognised SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) principles, embodied in Australian legislation, the master of a ship must render assistance to any person who is in danger of drowning-even an enemy during wartime. But as Commander Banks of HMAS Adelaide was to discover, these well-established principles were frequently overlooked in the scramble to maintain the integrity of Australia's borders, leaving the navy crews to witness first-hand the human cost of the operation.

Members of the HMAS Adelaide's crew were regarded as heroes when they dived into the water to rescue children and adults when the Olong, also known as SIEV 4, sank. But they need never have resorted to such measures. Commander Banks had been shadowing the boat for two and a half days. He had fired warning shots into the sea to deter it from entering Australian waters. When the engine failed-possibly due to sabotage by those on board the Olong-he was not permitted to evacuate any of the 200 passengers, despite the poor condition of the overcrowded boat. The order from the prime minister was to tow the Olong back to Indonesian waters. After a day and a night, the Olong literally fell apart, spilling all its passengers into the ocean. The photos and video of that rescue went on to be the centrepiece of the government's false claims at the height of the election campaign that children had been thrown overboard.

The outline of that shambolic episode has been pieced together in the coyly named Report on a Certain Maritime Incident by the Senate Select Committee Inquiry (2002). Those at the higher levels do not get off lightly in this tale of buck-passing, kowtowing and outright deceit, and in their recounting of the story, Marr and Wilkinson paint a picture of a public service-and, at times, a defence force-dutifully following Sir Humphrey's mantra. But their account also highlights the frustration and powerlessness of those such as Commander Banks, and Brigadier Bornholt from the defence force's public relations team, who did try to speak up. Their attempts to correct what was originally an innocent misunderstanding, caused predominantly by the abandonment of the usual protocols for communication between the defence forces and the bureaucracy by those in command of Operation Relex, were swept aside in the general frenzy of the election campaign and the force of the spin that was carrying Howard to his third election victory.

Dark Victory makes some serious allegations about the actions of various ministers. There is an account of a meeting in which Ruddock allegedly alluded to the possibility that Australia could play a part in the sabotage of boats leaving Indonesia. The inspector general of Intelligence and Security found that in addition to the extensive-and legal-surveillance of communications to and from the Tampa, the government used illegal phone taps to monitor the communications between the lawyer for the shipping line and his clients. And the role played by Reith and Howard in playing fast and loose with the truth about the children-overboard allegations during the election campaign is, even after the lengthy Senate committee inquiry, still not finally resolved, given the government's refusal to allow ministers and their advisers to give evidence to the inquiry.

This book is written with a steely precision. It is carefully sourced and footnoted, and the index is a joy, containing much valuable information as well as the bare facts. Take these extracts from the entry for Admiral Chris Barrie, for example: 'asked about military options by Howard'; 'begs Reith to give sailors a break'; 'considers whether he is a dill'; 'gagged over Operation Relex'; 'humiliated at press conference'; 'sceptical about feasibility of Operation Relex'; 'retires'. A major disappointment, though, is the cover. Dull and beige, it fails to do justice to the riches the book contains.

Marr and Wilkinson's analysis of the political strategising and manoeuvrings is comprehensive and persuasive. At the same time, one of the great strengths of this book is that they step back and allow the facts and the people to speak for themselves. There is Ruddock on why the government refused to let those on the Tampa land on Christmas Island: 'Once we had brought people ashore and they were in the migration zone - [Australia's legal] obligations kick in and - it was game, set, match.' (David Bennett QC could not have put it more clearly.) There is Christian Maltau, the first officer on board the Tampa: 'The fact that we never received any adequate supplies of medicines, food, blankets and other things that could have relieved the human suffering on board was perhaps what upset us most during the whole incident - We were close enough to shore to see the buildings, even the hospital, but no help arrived.' And there is Rear Admiral Ritchie: 'We are talking about people coming to Australia illegally. It is not World War III.'

And, of course, there are the asylum seekers. Marr and Wilkinson have trawled through the transcripts of the various legal proceedings and the report of the Inquiry into a Certain Maritime Incident which, they acknowledge, uncovered many of the facts of this story. They have also sought out and interviewed a number of the survivors of SIEV X, and those rescued by the Tampa, many of whom are now permanent residents of New Zealand. The voices of those people resonate throughout this book, asking questions that even the best-prepared minister would find difficult to answer. Like the following, from a survivor of SIEV X who, like the few other survivors, had spent a whole afternoon and night clinging to wreckage in the Indian ocean, thinking no-one would find him. After his rescue, he was interviewed by Australian and Indonesian representatives, who asked him to identify the boat that had sunk and claimed so many lives. 'You knew about our boat', he said, as they showed him a photo of the boat in the port prior to its departure. 'Why didn't you try to find us?' And the response of the Afghans on board SIEV 5 to being told that Australia would not accept illegal immigration: 'We are not illegal immigration. We are asylum seekers.'

As Neville Wran said after the sinking of SIEV X, 'We're not dealing with a problem here, we're dealing with people.' And while Dark Victory is a story about lies, threats and a political campaign built on fear, it is also a story about people, and about suffering. This is what you take away with you; this is what you cannot forget. Those 530 people still on Nauru and Manus Island, unable to be settled or returned, waiting for a new home. Those 353 people who drowned in the ocean, after boarding a boat that was so overburdened, so 'sad', as one of the survivors later described it, that it had trouble leaving its Indonesian port. And those 350 or so among us who, having suffered in one of the offshore detention centres as symbols of Australia's 'tough stance', have finally made it quietly to our shores. They are the victims of the new restrictive protection regime, unable now ever to become permanent members of our community. They are the true losers in Howard's Dark Victory.

Kristie Dunn is a freelance writer and lawyer. She worked as an associate to the Chief Justice of the Federal Court during the Tampa litigation.

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