Forum – The Tampa 10 Years On

By Tess Jaeger
Birds on collage backgraound

The Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) held its second annual Law and Social Change Dialogue on Thursday 25 August at the State Library of Victoria.

Friday 26 August 2011 marked 10 years since the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa came to the aid of a group of asylum seekers, mainly of Afghani background, whose boat was sinking near the Australian Territory of Christmas Island.

At the time of the rescue, the Howard Government prevented the Tampa’s new passengers from disembarking on Australian soil. They were instead sent to be processed and detained on Manus Island and Nauru. Many of the asylum seekers were eventually resettled in other countries, some came to Australia and others were returned to Afghanistan.

… the Howard Government prevented the Tampa’s new passengers from disembarking on Australian soil …

The dialogue was introduced by PILCH Executive Director Fiona McLeay and featured prominent human rights lawyers Julian Burnside AO QC and Debbie Mortimer SC, and distinguished journalist David Marr.

Speakers addressed the question of whether change is possible after 10 years of public wrangling with the political and legal issues raised by the Tampa incident.

Fiona McLeay began with a reading from David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s 2003 book Dark Victory, which offers an account of the events surrounding the Tampa crisis, as well as the Pacific solution and the children overboard affair.

Julian Burnside AO QC highlighted stark similarities between the Howard Government’s Pacific solution and the current Government’s proposed Malaysia solution, which requires changes to the Migration Act 1958.

Aptly, the dialogue took place following the High Court’s decision to freeze the Malaysia deal, and in the midst of the subsequent hearing, which ultimately held invalid the planned processing of asylum seekers arriving in Australia via Christmas Island, in Malaysia. The Gillard Government is now trying to amend the Migration Act in a bid to revive the ailing solution.

Aptly, the dialogue took place following the High Court’s decision to freeze the Malaysia deal …

This obvious and, at times, bleak comparison surfaced time and again. Debbie Mortimer SC – who represented the asylum seekers in the recent High Court hearing – stressed the importance of following the rule of law and underlined the public’s responsibility in voting for a government that will adhere to the courts’ decision and seek to pass just legislation.

David Marr offered a reel of shocking statistics describing Australia’s ostensible xenophobia and irrational fear of “boat people”. Among others, he quoted a 2001 Morgan poll that found 68 per cent of participating Australians would put asylum seekers “back to sea”. Those polled in other countries were considerably less punitive in their answers – this was in comparison to 43 per cent in New Zealand; 25 per cent in the US; and 45 per cent in the UK. After the political climate engendered under the Howard Government subsided in the proceeding few years, a similar poll by another pollster showed the number of Australian people willing to take this stance had halved.

While many of the statistics have not seen a great deal of improvement over the past 10 years, refugee advocates find encouragement in a recent Nielsen poll that shows “53 per cent of Australians [are] willing to do what this country promised to do when we signed the refugee conventions: let boat people land here to have their claims for protection assessed”.

Marr argued that “the boats” are the “focus of the terror”, despite the fact that the majority of people seeking asylum in Australia come by plane.

… “the boats” are the “focus of the terror” …

The dialogue posed not only legal questions, but cultural ones. The role of the media, as well as government and politicians in influencing public opinion on asylum seekers was made clear.

Members of the audience were cautioned that change may be both elusive and within our grasp, while Fiona McLeay ended the evening by quoting Martin Luther King Jnr.: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

Read more. Watch the recording of PILCH’s second annual Law and Social Change Dialogue.