Australia generally only makes world news outlets when one of the
following happens: there’s major summer bush fire, a shark mauls a
swimmer on one of our endless beaches, or a serious crime occurs
involving overseas tourists. But just on year ago our Nation became
front page news around the globe because we showed no mercy to 300
desperate people. And 12 months on, the inhumanity continues and shows
no so signs of abating.
The Nation was mesmerised when on 26 August 2001 the government
ordered the Norwegian trading vessel, that had picked up a boatload of
300 desperate asylum seekers, to not enter Australian waters.
For a week after, Mr Howard milked the issue for all that it was
worth and played to the fear that lies in the hearts of many Australians
who are all too aware that they live on an island continent – the fear
of invasion by hordes from the North. Eventually New Zealand took
some of the Tampa passengers and Australia effectively ‘bribed’
small and impoverished neighbours, Nauru and Papua-New Guinea to take
the remainder of the asylum seekers.
And twelve months on, the vast majority of Australians (over 75
percent according to most polls) still support the Howard government’s
tough line on asylum seekers that includes compulsory mandatory
detention in detention centres that are, in the main, located in the
most inhospitable parts of the Nation – Woomera in the South
Australian desert and Port Headland on the fiercely hot and wind swept
Western Australian coast. And although Woomera is to be scaled down
shortly, its replacement near the South Australian town of Port Augusta,
is just as exposed to the freezing winters nights and 50 degrees plus
But what the Tampa crisis represented for Australia was something
more than a misplaced and aberrant exercise in bellicosity.
Unfortunately it has enabled the fearful isolationists who want nothing
more than to retreat behind imaginary borders to win out – for the
moment at least.
We all recall the ‘hour upon the stage’ strutted by Pauline
Hanson – mouthing xenophobic and racist platitudes. While Ms Hanson
may have departed from the scene the politics of the Howard government
have pleased her supporters.
Thus the Howard government knows that it has strong community support
when it berates the United Nations for its criticism of our policy of
mandatory detention for asylum seekers – ‘these are do-gooder busy
bodies who don’t know what they are talking about’ is the mantra
chanted by Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer and the Immigration
Minister Philip Ruddock. All of which is highly ironic and tragic given
that it was one of Mr Downer’s predecessors – Dr Bert Evatt, who in
1945, won the support of Britain and the USA to ensure that the fledging
UN had a human rights mandate as well as a security charter.
And the coup de grace in the new isolationism of Australia was the
Howard government’s decision to instruct our UN Representative to vote
against the UN Optional Protocol against Torture, which would have
allowed UN inspectors to make spot checks on detention centres like Port
Headland or Woomera. In doing so we joined with China, Egypt, Sudan,
Nigeria and Libya! What company we are now days happy to keep!
And do not expect any change to the current hard-line stance against
asylum seekers to end anytime soon. The Labor Party is willing to
support the conservatives. When two of the Party’s largest
branches in New South Wales and Queensland – passed
resolutions at their conferences earlier this year calling for Labor to
support community based processing of asylum seekers as an alternative
to mandatory detention, the Party’s national Leader, Simon Crean,
simply ignored them.
Meanwhile the suffering of those who are in detention continues. Only
two weeks ago one of Australia’s leading trauma experts, a University
of New South Wales psychologist, Zachary Steel, reported that many in
the detention centres are suffering from ‘anticipatory stress disorder’.
A condition characterised by depression, anxiety and stress, in which
the sufferer lives in constant fear of being returned to their native
And of course, send them packing is exactly what the Australian
government has in mind for most asylum seekers. It has offered $A
2000 to any Afghan who will return home. A pitifully low amount
and even less generous than the UK Blair government’s offer of 2000
Alan Paton, the dissident South African writer, wrote ‘Cry the
Beloved Country. This is how many Australians feel about the Nation that
was once at the forefront of democracy and human rights. But now so many
who come to our shores since the Tampa crisis of 12 months ago would
unfortunately agree with a former detainee from Port Headland who was
quoted in a newspaper in Australia recently; “I never saw Australia as
a humanitarian country because refugees are treated like animals."