The 'Inside story' of Howard's war on refugees

June 18, 2003

Dark Victory
By David Marr and Marian Wilkinson
Allen & Unwin, 2003
$29.95 (pb)


David Marr and Marian Wilkinson's Dark Victory has had some rave reviews since its release in March. The praise is well deserved. It is an impeccably researched and gripping account of a period of Australian political history which will be remembered for many decades to come.

It is the "inside story" of the Australian government's escalation of the war against refugees which began with the rescue of 438 asylum seekers by the Norwegian container ship MV Tampa on August 26, 2001, and Prime Minister John Howard's refusal to allow them to set foot on Australian soil.

Dark Victory provides a unique insight into the weeks and months following the Tampa rescue, with a dazzling degree of behind-the-scenes details about the actions of government and the navy.

Generally speaking, though, Marr and Wilkinson don't go beyond an exploration of things which were already on the public record. Hence the books overwhelming focus is on two key events: the Tampa standoff and the interception of the boat at the centre of the "children overboard" scandal.

Like an episode of 24, the reader is given almost concurrent accounts of what was happening in Norway, where the Tampa's Wilhelmsen Line is based, aboard the Tampa and at Parliament House.

In investigating the lengths that the Australian authorities were prepared to go to stop asylum seekers from reaching Australia by boat, the authors flesh out with valuable detail the horrifying stand-offs that took place on the Tampa, then later on the HMAS Manoora as authorities forced the asylum seekers onto the tiny Pacific island of Nauru.

The authors note the pathetic role played by the Labor Party, in particular its federal leader at the time, Kim Beazley, who assessed an absence of sympathy for refugees among the Australian population and cynically shadowed the Howard government's approach to the issue.

On October 8, 2001, the day that the "children overboard" boat sank, the commander of the HMAS Adelaide, Norman Banks, was asked to return the ship to base as soon as possible and prepare to leave for the Persian Gulf to relieve US warships enforcing sanctions against Iraq. "For Banks, it was an exquisite irony. Before he could join the operation against the Iraqi dictator, he first needed to stop a boatload of Iraqis fleeing Saddam from setting foot on Australian soil."

On the collusion of the corporate media, Dark Victory recounts how Howard gave an interview to the Brisbane Courier-Mail's political editor Dennis Atkins, in which he made a crude link between terrorists and asylum seekers arriving by boat: "Atkins' report began: 'Australia had no way to be certain terrorists, or people with terrorist links, were not among the asylum seekers trying to enter the country by boat from Indonesia, Prime Minister John Howard said.' On Howard's plane late on the night of November 6, Atkins had his laptop open to show his press colleagues how the Courier-Mail would be splashing his scoop next morning. Howard appeared in the aisle and Atkins showed him, too. 'Good', said the Prime Minister. 'Excellent'."

Dark Victory describes how the Howard government used the issue of asylum seekers to win the November 2001 federal election, and recounts the manipulation and politicisation of the navy by the government for its own ends.

However, it is disappointing that some the less reported, and perhaps more sinister, incidents are not pursued. There is little investigation into the fate of several asylum seeker boats which were towed back to Indonesia, despite the fact that people went missing, presumed drowned.

Perhaps most importantly, though, a mere 15 pages in Dark Victory are devoted to the tragedy of SIEV-X, the "unknown" boat which sank off the coast of Indonesia, taking the lives of 353 passengers.

In an article in the April 5 Sydney Morning Herald, former diplomat Tony Kevin commented that Dark Victory "marginalises and relegates to a 'case unproven' category, what to me is the pivotal event of this period".

The SIEV-X chapter is largely descriptive and makes no effort to investigate or piece together the mountain of evidence which, Kevin and many others argue, points to an elaborate people-smuggling disruption program in which Australian authorities were deeply involved, and which was, quite possibly, responsible for the sinking of SIEV-X.

"There is no effort to analyse the disruption evidence", wrote Kevin, "and there is a remarkable lack of curiosity about how the voyage took place. The Ruddock stereotype, of greedy and cruel people smugglers overloading boats for profit, is taken as read. The authors conclude, without any discussion: 'Australia did not kill those who drowned on SIEV-X but their deaths can't be left out of the reckoning entirely'."

The final paragraph of the SIEV-X chapter makes a damning revelation which, for some reason, the authors don't even feel the need to comment on: "When some of the SIEV-X survivors were sufficiently recovered, two officials from the Australian embassy and their Indonesian colleagues paid them a visit. They were investigating Abu Quassey [the people smuggler who arranged the voyage] and his accomplices... Ali Hamid and Karim Jaber Houssein were happy to pass on all they knew. An Indonesian led the questioning. At one point in the long interview, he asked them to look at some 20 photographs of boats. 'Which is your boat?', the officer asked. Ali Hamid was amazed. According to him, there among the photographs was a grainy, black and white picture of Abu Quassey's boat before its departure. It looked like a satellite image or a surveillance picture. Ali's amazement turned to anger. 'You knew about our boat', he said. 'Why didn't you try to find us?'."

(In their footnotes, the authors note that the Federal Police claims to have no knowledge of these pictures.)

Whether the authors felt that such an investigation was beyond the scope of the book, or they felt that Australian authorities could not possibly have known about the sinking boat and done nothing to stop it, remains unclear. Nevertheless, as a historical record of the Tampa affair and the subsequent events which led up to the 2001 federal election, Dark Victory makes a very valuable contribution.

From Green Left Weekly, June 18, 2003.
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