Howard's reshaping of Australia

How Tampa sailed into 2002

Robert Manne


To understand Australian politics in 2002, one must begin with the Tampa incident of August, 2001. Tampa not only assured the government of victory in the November election. It also altered the balance of forces in Australia in a fundamental way. After Tampa, John Howard realised that he could appeal directly to popular instinct and bypass the kind of fussy moral arguments advanced by the educated, left-leaning section of society his government called the "elites".

Already, after the 1996 election, Howard began to disparage, as "political correctness", the cultural agenda followed by every government since Whitlam, with its implicit criticisms of the foundations of the Australian state. Howard wanted to make the people "comfortable and relaxed" about their past. His government stopped talking about multiculturalism. It helped kill off the republic. It rejected the idea of Aboriginal self-determination. It reoriented Australian foreign policy from its Asian focus.

Between 1996 and 2001 there was a battle of sorts between the "elites" and the "ordinary people", over Howard's reshaping of Australia. On no issue was this battle more clear-cut than on the question of the treatment of asylum seekers. The government's decision to use military force to repel boat refugees was not only a brilliant populist ploy. It also represented for the "elites" a decisive defeat. It is in the light of that defeat that the politics of 2002 are best understood.

This year the only threat to the new balance of forces came in the aftermath of the "children overboard" affair. After the election the general public discovered, first, that the story was not true; second, that the photographs released by the government depicted a different event; third, that within minutes of their release senior Defence bureaucrats advised their minister's office of that fact; fourth, that two days before the election the Acting Chief of the Defence Force informed his minister that there was no evidence that children had been thrown overboard; and, fifth, that although the Minister for Defence spoke to the Prime Minister that night, John Howard spent the day before the election assuring the media that on "the best advice" available the government still believed that children had been thrown overboard.

As these details emerged it momentarily appeared as if Howard's Tampa cultural victory might be reversed. Even if the people supported the refugee repulsion policy, surely they would resent the fact that they had been so comprehensively misled. This was another "elite" misunderstanding. The Howard government weathered the children overboard scandal unscathed.

During 2002 almost no "unauthorised" asylum seekers came by boat or plane. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Australia had no asylum seeker "problem", hundreds of men, women and children, whose refugee applications had been rejected but who could not be repatriated, were left to rot in the detention camps. This shocking and purposeless cruelty, which occasioned savage United Nations condemnation, became, in 2002, a matter of general indifference.