John Hirst

The Tampa episode was very revealing of the state of Australian society and politics. Seventy-five per cent of the Australian people supported the Prime Minister in not allowing the Tampa people to land on Australian soil. The left-liberal intelligentsia was appalled at the Prime Minister’s action, which they saw as mean, heartless and damaging to Australia’s international reputation. They were ashamed of their country.

Their denunciations continue to flow. Two issues of Quarterly Essay have now been devoted to this issue. Last year Guy Rundle issued The Opportunist: John Howard and the Triumph of Reaction. Now Mungo MacCallum has produced Girt By Sea: Australia, the Refugees and the Politics of Fear.

The critics offer two explanations of the episode. Firstly it revealed that multiculturalism was a veneer and the Australian people had reverted to type and were as xenophobic and racist as they had been when they supported the White Australia policy.

The second prong of the explanation is to blame it on the man who took the decision that was so widely supported. Howard, it is said, is unfit to be a prime minister; he is a crude populist willing to do anything to save his own skin.

In sum, the Tampa episode reveals that a nasty man is in charge of an ugly people. The proponents of this explanation evidently find it highly satisfying. I don’t.

As Paul Kelly has pointed out in the Australian, Howard’s critics refuse to take the question of border protection seriously. Rundle dismisses it in an aside – “5,000 or so arrivals by sea did not present any sort of logistical problem” (p.6). What numbers would present a problem; whether the 5,000 safely arrived would encourage many more to come, Rundle does not consider. The Labor government of Paul Keating thought it had a problem because it decided to put asylum seekers in detention camps, an action not attributed to the character failings of the Prime Minister.

John Howard did not, as his critics allege, “create” the refugee problem when the Tampa entered the scene. Handling the refugees was a long-standing problem for the government. In 1999 it set up a special taskforce to deal with the issue. It was administering a law that it thought was inadequate and could not change to the extent that it wished. The number of unauthorised arrivals was rising. Since the Tampa refugees had hijacked a seaworthy vessel and directed it away from Indonesia and towards Australia, the Prime Minister could act decisively. This incursion was both more blatant and more readily repelled.

The popularity of his firm stand and the wrong-footing of Labor on the issue gave the Prime Minister a great electoral advantage. His critics claim that he should not have taken it, for it let loose a wave of xenophobia and racism. I have seen no wave. No doubt the action was welcomed by the racists and xenophobes, but for most of the supporters the claim that they were moved by racism or xenophobia is implausible. The attitudes that have made the great migration such a success do not change overnight. The migrants, including a quota of refugees, are still coming. During the election campaign the Prime Minister did not bring the migration program into question; on the contrary he continued explicitly to support it. To characterise as xenophobic a country that is running a large-scale, non-discriminatory immigration program is a contradiction in terms.

The Prime Minister’s slogan for the campaign was: “We will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come here.” Note that it was not: “We will have no migrants.” Nor was it: “We will send the migrants home.” These would have been the cries of a genuine populist. His words were: We determine who comes here. This minimum claim for the sovereignty of the nation is denounced as xenophobia and racism.

For its supporters, the Prime Minister’s action was a highly reassuring event. Its broad appeal was not to race or xenophobia; it was a declaration that Australia still existed and could still take charge of its destiny. (Whether in fact it will be able to control the flow of boat people remains to be seen.)

There are strong forces leading us to feel that Australia is slipping from us. There is the imperative to compete in a global economy and to adapt ourselves to “world’s best practice” which involves the abandonment of long-established Australian policies, a course to which both major parties are committed.

There is also the sort of multiculturalism that insists that Australia should not be defined. Australia is a mixture, a process, a becoming. Among the Liberals, Rundle prefers Jeff Kennett who he claims genuinely saw community as “a work-in-progress undertaken by different ethnic groups – a community of no particular or specified character” (p. 25). One of Rundle’s gravest charges against Howard is that he is confident about what Australia is.

Australia is also erased by those who claim that it must unquestioningly follow all UN declarations and treat unauthorised arrivals as if they were already citizens. About the rights of these people the civil libertarians are amazingly tender. The ordinary citizen is mostly locked out of the courts, but an illegal arrival, declared not to be a refugee, must be able to carry their case to the highest court in the land.

The issue of the boats arriving on the north-west coast is essentially one of control. The Prime Minister demonstrated that someone is in charge; that Australia has a view on its migrant intake; that it has interests and processes that it wishes to protect. The critics who say that the numbers are few forget that Australia is already running a large immigration program, including the reception of refugees. That program has its perils. For the multicultural zealots a migration program can do no damage; it is a self-evident good; once begun it can never be scrutinised, reassessed or stopped. But the great majority of Australians want the government to keep an eye on what is happening. The relationship between support for the Prime Minister on Tampa and the general immigration program is the reverse of what Howard’s critics imagine. A tough stand on border control increases support for the official migration program.

Mungo MacCallum is the latest critic not to understand this. He knows Australia well; he notices that even in the 1940s and 1950s Australians had an easy tolerance for newcomers. His mistake is to think that those attitudes must have disappeared in Australia in 2002 because most Australians supported the Prime Minister on Tampa. Like many others, he thinks Indonesian fishing boats organised by people-smugglers are the modern equivalent of the boats that Arthur Calwell arranged for the Displaced Persons. Why Australians should accept the one and reject the other is a genuine puzzle for him.

There is no evidence of change in Australian attitudes to migrants who are already here or those invited to come. The critics of Howard were ashamed of their country. It is now time for them to be ashamed of themselves – for so misunderstanding and denigrating their fellow citizens.


John Hirst is Reader in History at La Trobe University and the author of The Sentimental Nation.

Postscript: On 7 May 2002 the Howard government announced that the migration intake for next year would rise to 105,000 (from 93,000) and would be maintained above 100,000 for the next four years.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 5, Girt By Sea. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 6, Beyond Belief.


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