Twenty years on from the Tampa affair, which prompted the offshore detention of hundreds of asylum seekers – sometimes for years – John Howard remains unapologetic.
In an interview with the Guardian ahead of the release of the 2001 cabinet papers by the National Archives of Australia, , the former prime minister said his tough policies had “saved lives” and that European nations were now facing a similar dilemma about how to avoid asylum seekers drowning at sea.
“I thought the Australian public supported what we did over Tampa and generally supported what we did on offshore processing – quite strongly,” Howard said.
“The Australian public’s position on migration has always been they are supportive of it provided it’s properly controlled. But once they think it’s getting out of control they reduce their level of support, and when it’s again under control they go back to supporting.”
In August 2001 the Norwegian freighter Tampa answered a mayday call from Australian authorities to rescue a boatload of 433 asylum seekers sinking in international waters off Christmas Island. But once the Tampa had rescued them, it was refused permission to enter Australian waters.
As the stalemate continued over several days, the asylum seekers, many of whom were in poor health, became agitated. Captain Arne Rinnan decided to sail towards Christmas Island, prompting the Australian government to send 45 SAS troops to board the vessel and prevent it coming any closer.
The event drew international attention.
Howard said he did not recall any substantial concerns from his ministers about whether Australia was breaching its international obligations under the law of the sea.
“In something like that you would always have a few concerns from the department, but I never had any concerns about the legality of it,” he said.
Asked whether it was “a big move” to put Australian troops on to a civilian maritime vessel, Howard said: “It was a big move by them to defy a request by us not to enter our territorial waters. I would call it a proportionate response.”
The Norwegians, however, were very upset.
“I had a discussion with [the then Norwegian prime minister, Jens] Stoltenberg, who is now head of Nato, and he thought it was all our problem,” Howard said.
“That was before the action. He was under no illusion, and [Australia’s foreign minister at the time] Alexander Downer warned their foreign minister we would take action.”
What happened over coming days would define Australia’s treatment of people arriving by boat for years to come. It would begin what became known as the “Pacific solution”, with offshore processing and detention used explicitly to dissuade people smugglers from offering Australia as a destination.
The 2001 cabinet papers provide very little insight into the thinking of the government during the immediate crisis, but they show the government had been worried about a wave of arrivals before then.
In July 2001, the cabinet considered a submission from the immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, warning that intelligence suggested there was a pool of 6,000 asylum seekers looking to enter Australia and “uncorroborated reports” of a vessel being prepared that could carry 3,000 people.
The cabinet was told that a further 1,600 arrivals would exhaust Australia’s available detention capacity. Ruddock was given the go-ahead to begin contingency planning for more facilities in Darwin and South Australia.
By August he was informing the cabinet that there were a high number of arrivals on Ashmore and Christmas Island, despite efforts to thwart people smugglers in Indonesia, and “interventions” and surveillance at sea.
The Tampa crisis in August prompted a dramatic response from the government.
First it moved to excise Ashmore reef and Christmas Island from Australia’s migration zone.
The government then decided to take the asylum seekers to Nauru.
Howard explained that the decision to opt for offshore processing was “for legal reasons” – to ensure that those transferred from the Tampa would be unable to avail themselves of the Australian legal system.
On 7 October the cabinet agreed to provide $45m for a new processing centre on Nauru. The decision, made without a submission, does not provide any insights into why Nauru was chosen.
Howard denied that the policy of requiring refugees to stay on Nauru was harsh.
“Quite the opposite. It had a remarkable demonstration effect. It stopped the boats, and, as it turned out, saved lives,” he told the Guardian.
The handling of the Tampa affair and implementation of the Pacific solution attracted international criticism.
Most of the people on the Tampa were Hazaras fleeing persecution in Afghanistan and were settled in New Zealand and Australia, having been found to be refugees deserving of resettlement.
However, the policy did have a deterrent effect. In the six years from 2002, only 23 boats arrived in Australia compared with 43 carrying more than 5,000 asylum seekers in 2001 alone.
Siev X and ‘children overboard’
Two more important events unfolded in 2001 that would shape the debate over asylum seekers and the policies both sides took to election.
On 19 October an Indonesian fishing boat carrying more than 400 asylum seekers en route to Christmas Island capsized in international waters with the loss of all on board. The Siev X, as it was designated, prompted a fierce debate about the new policy.
“It was terrible,” Howard said. “I can’t remember where I was. It was a tragic incident, but I don’t think it was because of something we had done. We tried to stop people starting out.
“I don’t accept that you can draw a direct link between that tragic incident and the action we took on the Tampa. I would not accept that.
“This is a very fraught area and we are seeing that play out now in the English Channel and in Europe.
“It requires us not just to think of the immediate responses of countries who people are trying reach, but also the countries and circumstances that causes them to flee. In a perfect world, benign interventions and sanctions by everybody would prevent a lot of these things from occurring.
“I think the Australian policy we introduced in 2001 did save lives. It was controversial. I think the consequences of Kevin Rudd’s relaxation of it were there for all to see. I think you can draw a direct link between that change and some of the tragic incidents that followed.”
The other case was the “children overboard” affair, which occurred the day before the election was called but surfaced during the campaign. The immigration minister and other senior ministers, including Howard, claimed incorrectly that a Defence photo showed asylum seekers throwing children overboard in an attempt to secure rescue and passage to Australia.
Doubt was cast on the accuracy of this claim by the Australian and it was subsequently found to be untrue by a Senate committee.
But during the campaign the false narrative became potent political fuel in the debate over migration policy.
Howard said he did not regret making the claims.
“It was the advice we had at the time. I mentioned it myself a couple of times and then it dropped out of public consciousness until right at the end of the campaign when a couple of people made some comments to the Australian,” he said.
“It wasn’t a big issue in the campaign. Our critics said we won the election based on children overboard, but that was nonsense.”
‘New securitised mindset’
The Tampa crisis was swiftly followed by the 11 September attacks in the US. Howard was in Washington and saw one of the hijacked planes strike the Pentagon from his hotel window.
The archives historian, Assoc Prof Chris Wallace, argues in her essay accompanying the release of the 2001 papers that the threat of terrorism became fused in popular perception with the asylum seeker issue by political design as well as chronological proximity.
“2001 is the year when Australia pivoted into this new securitised mindset, partly driven by events but to a significant extent by political choice,” she wrote.
“This pivot is evident in the 2001 cabinet papers release in which domestic submissions, free from a securitisation mindset, dominate until Tampa and the September 11 attacks occur,” she said.
The papers themselves provide little insight into cabinet discussions about 11 September.
On 14 September the government invoked the Anzus treaty – one of the few times Howard preempted cabinet, he said.
A cabinet minute of that date records a short period of silence was observed and notes that 90 Australians were still unaccounted for. Sunday 16 September was declared a day of mourning.
But there was also early sensitivity to the potential divisions that a focus on terrorism and the Islamic backgrounds of those involved in the attacks could provoke.
“Cabinet also noted the importance of ensuring that no member of the Australian community should feel vulnerable because of their ethnic or cultural heritage in the aftermath of the attacks,” the minute says.
On 10 December the national security committee turned down a request for Australia to provide a protective escort to US naval vessels in the straits of Malacca, ahead of a visit to Indonesia by the prime minister scheduled for February 2002.
Howard said at the archives briefing he was “always mindful of Indonesia, being our neighbour and the largest Muslim country in the world, particularly after 9/11 and the focus on Islamist extremism”.
The committee also said it would wait for a formal request from the US before committing more than the 100 SAS troops already deployed in Afghanistan on counter-terrorism duties.
A week later, however, the cabinet agreed to engage in further discussions with the UK government over joining a multinational stabilisation force, but said it would be “limited to no more than two infantry companies”.
Over the next 20 years Australia’s commitment would be much greater, leading to our longest conflict to date.
At the archives briefing, Howard denied that the government’s responses to the two events were exploited to win the election. He said the polls were already improving for him and domestic policies dominated the campaign.
But the twin issues eroded support for Labor’s Kim Beazley, as domestic security became a dominant issue.
In November that year Howard won a third term with an increased majority, setting him on a path to becoming Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister.
“It’s a year I will not forget,” said Howard, the master of the understatement.