BY SARAH STEPHEN
In the days before the November 10 federal election, the Australian government's punitive policy toward asylum seekers began to backfire on the Coalition government. A wave of former prime ministers, former Labor and Liberal cabinet ministers, top public servants, former diplomats, academics and church leaders all spoke out against the government's treatment of refugees. Then a navy spokesperson denied that the navy had advised Prime Minister John Howard's government that refugees had thrown children into the sea — a claim that Howard has made a centrepiece of his campaign to demonise asylum seekers.
On October 6, the HMAS Adelaide intercepted a boat with 187 Iraqi asylum seekers on board. A written warning was thrown aboard the boat. When it was ignored, warning shots were fired to deter the boat from continuing toward Australia. Navy personnel boarded the boat to turn it around.
According to immigration minister Philip Ruddock, the navy told the government that some asylum seekers then threw their children, wearing life jackets, into the water.
Howard and Labor leader Kim Beazley did not ask to see the evidence before they rushed to condemn the refugees. Neither, for that matter, did the mainstream media.
Howard and his ministers repeatedly made use of the allegations to fuel the government's campaign to demonise asylum seekers trying to reach Australia. Howard accused refugees of manipulating Australia's compassion and forcing the navy to rescue them.
"I can't comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard", said Howard.
"I regard these as some of the most disturbing practices I've come across in the time I've been involved in public life", said Ruddock.
After photos were released that only showed asylum seekers in the water, questions were raised about the evidence for the allegations. Referring to a navy video, defence minister Peter Reith on October 10 stated that "someone has looked at it and it is an absolute fact, the children were thrown into the water".
However, on November 7 the Australian reported that two Christmas Island residents had been told by two sailors from the HMAS Adelaide that the government's claims were untrue. One sailor had said: "Whatever you hear, the asylum seekers did not throw their children overboard." A resident said he was told the boat was already sinking and "that was the reason they were in the water".
Howard and Reith dismissed the reports but pressure mounted for the navy video footage to be released.
When the footage was made public on November 8, it did not show any children being thrown overboard. It showed a number of adult asylum seekers jumping in. It also revealed that the boat was sinking, according to former navy captain interviewed by the November 9 Australian.
It has since been revealed that the officer in charge of the navy boarding crew judged that the fishing boat was in danger of sinking and ordered the asylum seekers to leave the boat. Sailors report that people — adults and children — jumped into the water and swam toward a life raft. Nobody was thrown.
On November 8, navy chief vice-admiral David Shackleton made a shock announcement: "The navy had never advised defence minister Peter Reith that there were children thrown overboard ... The navy's advice to the minister was that a child ... had been held over a top railing of the boat with intent to throw the child overboard. Our advice was that there were people being threatened to be thrown in the water and I don't know what happened to the message after that."
That statement revealed Reith and Howard to be liars. A few hours later, Shackleton added that Reith had been advised by the defence department that it "believed" children had been thrown overboard.
The claim that asylum seekers even threatened to throw a child overboard has also been challenged. A petty officer who was on board the HMAS Adelaide during the incident explained to the November 9 Australian why the video showed someone holding up a child: "They were holding them up to show we have small children on board."
Risking his career in the Naval Reserve, Commander Dr Duncan Wallace spoke out against the government's use of the navy to deter asylum seekers.
The November 7 Sydney Morning Herald reported that Wallace, who recently spent 30 days on the HMAS Arunta, said in a letter: "These actions are ineffective in deterring people in coming to Australia and merely serve to harass, frighten and demoralise people who are already weak, vulnerable and desperate... It is my expert opinion, as a senior consultant psychiatrist to the Royal Australian Navy, that they are highly likely to be harmful to the psychological health and moral development of all [RAN] members involved... Nearly everyone I spoke to that was involved in these operations knew that what they were doing was wrong."
Wallace has been supported by a former top military officer, Brigadier Adrian D'Hage, who told the November 7 Herald that there was deep unhappiness and falling morale in the defence force at the role it had been forced to play in the boat people issue.
Wallace's letter continues: "I believe that how we deal with the boat people is the greatest moral question that has faced Australia in a generation. The hard-hearted who speak loudly about the need for stern, deterrent actions to solve this problem have not seen the faces of the boat people in their miserable conditions, imploring us for help."
The list of public figures who are criticising the bipartisan approach to asylum seekers is steadily increasing.
Ian McPhee, a former immigration minister in the Coalition government led by Malcolm Fraser, described Howard as "a throwback we must throw out." He told the November 7 7.30 Report that "my reaction to the Liberal Party applauding Philip Ruddock was one of horror. It shows you there's not one liberal left in the Liberal Party." Fraser has also criticised Howard's refugee policy in harsh terms.
John Hewson, a former Liberal Party leader, commented that, "To an Asian, our solution to the Tampa reeks of racism. It further feeds a suspicion that still persists in Asia that we have never abandoned the White Australia Policy".
"This is not strong leadership, to attack vulnerable, outcast, weak people, it is cowardice", said John Menadue, former head of the immigration department under the Whitlam and Fraser governments.
Other recent critics include High Court justice Ronald Wilson, Leighton Holdings chief executive Wal King and former governor-general Sir William Deane.
Even the notoriously right-wing John Singleton, businessperson and former ALP ad producer, felt compelled to condemn policies that are "an immoral, unprincipled electoral strategy by both parties... We're one of the biggest, emptiest, luckiest nations in the world, and somehow we have turned our back on the world we came from."
Greg Sheridan, writing in the November 8 Australian, summed up the mood among many conservatives: "You have a right to determine who comes into your home. But if there's a car accident in your street in which the husband is killed and the wife, bleeding and injured, brings her three small daughters to your front door, in need of rudimentary but urgent medical attention and the use of a phone, what is your response? Legally you're entitled to refuse her entry, no doubt. Morally, to do so would be evil, even grotesque."
Sheridan drew attention to the sharp criticism from former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Richard Woolcott, who accused Howard of looking at foreign policy only through a narrow, short-term, domestic prism and ignoring the "national interest".
Sheridan added the example of three Australian National University professors who had "condemned Howard's foreign policy and said our position in the region was the weakest it has been in a generation".
"The revolt this week of the foreign policy professionals should be of the highest concern to the government, though doubtless it will dismiss them as members of the elite. In fact, these people are not chardonnay socialists or Balmain basketweavers. They are dedicated professionals, outraged at the huge damage to our national interests the policy is doing and also at its moral perversity."
Sheridan expresses a genuine concern among Australia's ruling capitalist class that the thrust of the Coalition's policy is doing substantial damage to Australian business prospects in the Asia-Pacific region.
From Green Left Weekly, November 14, 2001.
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