A Story of Two Elections

by Kathryn Khwaja

The November 2001 Federal Election

“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Prime Minister John Howard, October 2001 Federal Election Campaign Launch Speech

In August 2001 the Tampa crisis became the catalyst for Australia’s new border protection policy and a central issue in the election campaign to gain re election. The refugee issue became about government action and policy rather than lives at sea or human rights.

Through early 2001, the governing Coalition had been behind Labor in opinion polls. The Tampa and Children Overboard controversies, closely followed by the September 11 terrorist attacks, strongly influenced voters in the November election.

David Marr and Marian Wilkinson book Dark Victory (2004) vividly describe the events around the Tampa and gives the refugees names and voices. It describes how many of Howard’s voters were manipulated into associating refugees as potential terrorists and the “boat people” issue about invasion and national sovereignty. John Howard was eager to reclaim the One Nation vote. Marr and Wilkinson argue that public relations trumped policy with regard to asylum seekers.

The government’s deliberately planned wedge politics were supported by the many Howard supporters in Rupert Murdoch’s media. The government ignored the practices of a civilised, seafaring country, which were to help people stranded at sea.  Marr and Wilkinson describe a lack of press briefings about operational detail from the military.

In August 2001 over 400 refugees were rescued by the Norwegian ship MV Tampa, captained by Arne Rinnan from a stranded Indonesian fishing boat in the Indian Ocean. The refugees were being taken to Australia’s Christmas Island until the Australian Government refused to allow the Tampa to land any of the asylum-seekers.

Many of the asylum-seekers were unwell and Rinnan made repeated requests to Australian authorities for help. Rinnan’s requests were acknowledged but help was not forthcoming so Rinnan decided to sail into Australian waters.

When the Tampa entered Australian waters Australian authorities advised Rinnan that he was breaking the law, and troops were sent to prevent it from reaching Christmas Island.

Howard proceeded to draw up the Border Protection Bill, which would have given the government the power to remove any foreign ship in Australian waters. The Bill was backdated to give legality for the military entering the Tampa.

The Bill was criticised for the powers it was proposing and was defeated in the Senate. By the 2nd September the government had negotiated agreements with Nauru and New Zealand. The Tampa’s asylum-seekers were taken to Nauru from where 131 of them were sent to New Zealand and the remaining were processed on Nauru.

In October 2001 the Children Overboard controversy involved allegations by government ministers that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard to ensure rescue at sea. Again the government used this story to its advantage by associating refugees with this image.

The Senate Select Committee later found that no child had been thrown overboard and the government had known this before the election. Prime Minister Howard maintained that the boat sank due to the irresponsibility of the refuges, which put their children in to the water, though reports stated it was due to the strain of being towed.

The only photos or film released supposedly showed children being thrown overboard. Howard put a press blackout on anyone not directly connected to, and agreeing with, the specific government policies.

The media only had information agreeing with the government’s policies through the government press releases. An election was forthcoming and the “war on terror” from September 11th was linked with the asylum-seeker issue by the government.

After the Tampa crisis the government created the Pacific Solution, which ensured that, asylum-seekers had no automatic right to seek refugee status if they arrived on Australia’s offshore islands, including Christmas Island. Asylum-seekers could also now be processed offshore in Nauru and Manus Island. The Labor Opposition did not oppose these policies.

The Australian Government’s handling of the Tampa affair and implementation of the Pacific Solution attracted international criticism. However, in the six years from 2002, only 23 boats arrived in Australia compared to 43 carrying more than 5000 asylum-seekers in 2001 alone.

John Howard won the election in November 2001 and regarded the Tampa crisis a success. Australia’s system for dealing with refugees had become even harsher and Hanson’s One Nation won no seats.

Since 2001, both the Liberals and Labor have shifted to harsher policies on asylum seekers.

Many refugees from Tampa call New Zealand home, which nearly 20 years later, was a source of hope for refugees in the 2019 federal election.

The May 2019 Federal Election

“We’ve got our borders and the Budget under control.  We make decisions about who comes here based on what’s in Australia’s interests.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, April 2019 speech to Liberal Party figures

Morrison’s governing Liberal party went into the May 2019 election promising to keep the number of migrants coming to Australia each year as refugees at 18,750 and freezing the number of humanitarian arrivals for the next government term.

Morrison also promised to repeal Medevac. From March 2019 the Medevac Law transferred refugees from Nauru and PNG to Australia for emergency medical treatment. Medevac required a medical assessment from two doctors that was reviewed by an independent health advice panel. 

The opposition Labor Party, led by Bill Shorten, supported Medevac. Whilst also supporting mandatory detention, Labor pledged to limit the length of detention to 90 days for onshore detainees and supported community detention.

For the approximately 915 detainees living on Manus and Nauru, Labor also promised to explore regional processing arrangements and third country resettlement. Labor pledged to continue the US refugee resettlement deal and agree to New Zealand’s offer to accept some refugees.

Virtually all the polls predicted Labor would win with a 51:49 lead over Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The expectation and mood in Manus and Nauru was somewhat hopeful. Labor promised to accept New Zealand’s offer to take 150 asylum seekers and increase the country’s humanitarian intake to 27,000 refugees a year.

Surprisingly, in May 2019 the governing Coalition won the election and held onto power. The effect on the refugees was deeply traumatic.

My reflections on the election’s aftermath when working for Therapy4Refugees:

I have never experienced such mass despair and hopelessness from a group of people than in the time after the 2019 election. It was as though things went out of control. The sense of disappointment was keenly felt in Australian Labor politics but with refugees it was as though all hope had gone. My client in Manus spoke of the mood and terrible atmosphere after the shock and disbelief of seeing the coalition government re elected. It was as though nobody there could comfort one another and many refugees were not coming out of their accommodation.

I tried to hold my client and hold on to hope. Attending group supervision felt flat and heavy. Things had suddenly gone from some hope of a resettlement in New Zealand to the shock that, despite the polls, the present government would continue for the years to come. It was a bad enough situation before on Manus but what my client described was a mass deterioration in mental health and an increased atmosphere of desperation. The mood was catching with an atmosphere of suicide contagion; the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviours was leading to an increase in suicides and suicidal behaviours.

Kurdish-Iranian Journalist Behrouz Boochani, who was detained on Manus at the time, told the ABC that around 26 refugees in PNG had self-harmed or attempted suicide since the election result. He said that he had never seen Manus like that or people in that condition and that the local hospital was struggling to manage the cases.

Sri Lankan Shaminda Kanapathi, also detained on Manus, told the Guardian Australia that he feared they would be abandon in PNG forever and that their lives were in limbo.

Kurdish refugee, Benham Satah, said that the healthcare could not cope with the amount of mental health issues and that everyone was deeply depressed.

After the coalition’s win Medevac was reversed. The offer from New Zealand holds today but the Australian government fear that refugees would then enter Australia. The US resettlement policy still slowly continues.

Nearly 20 years after the Tampa crisis, Australia still has prolonged detention after health, identity and security checks have taken place.

Immigration policy has been a major issue at every Australian election since the 2001 election and refugees are directly impacted by these policies.

Paris Aristotle, CEO of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, believes that parts of Australia’s approach to detention would eventually be seen as similar to the removal of indigenous children from their families.

If you took the characteristics of dispossession, separation, isolation, trauma, complete lack of power over your lives and a lack of judicial redress, all of those elements exist in how we are dealing with this at this point of time. (The Age, 2002).

Kathryn Khwaja

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