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Australia's international humiliation over boat people

By Keith Suter - posted Monday, 15 October 2001

Australia has sustained a major international humiliation – but many Australians do not care. A year ago Australia successfully hosted the largest peacetime event in world history: the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Now it seems unable to cope with 460 Afghanis seeking asylum.

On Sunday August 26, the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa responded to an Australian Coastal Surveillance alert that a boat was sinking 140 kilometres north of Australia’s west coast. The Afghanis had journeyed to Indonesia and then tried to sail to Australia. That ship had run into trouble. The Norwegian ship then rescued the 460 people. The MV Tampa sought permission to land them on the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

But the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, refused it permission to land. He said that they had to go to Indonesia (because they were rescued in Indonesian waters) or the Tampa could take them to Norway. The Prime Minister dug his heels in – and most Australians (if opinion surveys and talk back radio are to be believed) supported him. The more international criticism Australia attracted for its obstinacy and its failure to abide by international law, so the more determined the Australian Government became not to give in.


The deadlock seemed to be broken on Saturday September 1. New Zealand offered to take 150 of the asylum seekers and the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru (population of about 12,000) offered to take in the rest.

What has happened to Australia’s image of tolerance and generosity? Something in the Australian body politic snapped. The hatred shown to these asylum seekers (such as on talk back radio) was stunning.

First, this is a warning of Australia’s continued paranoia. One of the first acts of the British settlers when they arrived in Sydney just over two centuries ago was to put artillery in the mouth of the harbour in case the French tried to attack the new colony. That paranoia has remained, with politicians whipping up fears of threats "from the north" (Russians, Germans, Japanese, Vietnamese, Soviets, and Indonesians).

Australia is, in fact, living in one of the quietest corners of the globe. It is too far away from most of the world’s trouble spots. But that perception is not widely shared among many Australians.

Second, racism is a continuous thread in Australian politics. The British settlers set about exterminating the indigenous peoples on this continent – the world’s longest continuous civilization. Racism was also a major motivator for the British colonies coming together a century ago this year to form the Commonwealth of Australia. They were scared of the "Asian hordes". One of the first policies of the new federation of Australia was the creation of the White Australia Policy, which remained in force until about four decades ago.

Australia now has one of the most multicultural societies in the world. Many refugees have been welcomed into Australia. But this may be an uneasy truce. While Australia is fortunate not to have the race riots of some other developed countries, there is an increasing undertone of fear that multiculturalism may not be working out.


Some ethnic communities (as in other developed countries) have a disproportionately high rate of unemployment and crime. Islamic communities seem to be the main current example. Australian economic policy of the past three decades (irrespective of the party in power) has transformed the country but at some social cost. Traditional manufacturing has declined and there is a reduction in employment in rural areas. There are not enough jobs for young people.

Third, there is the "politics of anger". There is despair with mainstream politicians: "Who ever you vote for, a politician always wins". Politicians on the fringes of the mainstream (notably Pauline Hanson and a host of "independent" candidates) are increasing in popularity. The electorate is highly volatile.

The Government is in severe trouble according to recent state election results. The Labor strategy is to say little and hope to cruise to power on a wave of anti-government feeling (not least over recent tax changes). Suddenly, the bashing of refugees has made the Prime Minister very popular and so Labor is reluctant to challenge his views for fear of annoying its supporters.

With the election due on November 11, no party can afford to alienate public opinion. Foreigners may have been offended by the Government’s actions – but they don’t vote in Australian elections.

Thus, the MV Tampa accidentally sailed into a hurricane of Australian anger.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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