In November 2001, John Howard won a spectacular third federal election victory in Australia. Coming barely two months after 9/11 Howard had the advantage of incumbency, but it was still a come from behind win. Kim Beazley’s Labor Party comfortably outpolled the Liberal/National coalition for much of the 2001 calendar year. The defining moment in the campaign came three months earlier when a Norwegian vessel rescued boatpeople from the high seas.
The events of Tampa are documented in detail in a book by two Australian journalists David Marr and Marian Wilkinson. “Dark Victory” forensically takes the reader on a journey through choppy waters. It is a story where no one in Australia comes out with a good reputation. But while the Norwegians picked up boatpeople, Howard picked up electoral traction. The rescue set in chain a series of events that were thoroughly and totally manipulated by Canberra. It was an operation that moved at breathtaking speed that left the media and the opposition trailing in its wake. It eventually closed the hearts and minds of Australians to refugees. It eventually led to Howard's stunning victory with a campaign statement which said “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.
The people Howard didn’t want to come to Australia were mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq. They were either fleeing the tyranny of the Taliban or ten years of suffocating sanctions on Iraq. The people on board the Palapa were mainly Afghan with a few who said they were Pakistanis. It had an Indonesian crew. The passengers had paid thousands of US dollars to intermediaries to take a dangerous journey on an over-loaded and leaky boat. They were sailing from Pantau, a port on the south-west of Java near the surfing town of Pelabuhan Ratu. They were headed for the Australian Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, some thirty or forty hours away to the south. But after a day's sailing the engine went dead. The boat drifted aimlessly.
The crew reassured nervous passengers they were in Australian waters and would be rescued. But the crew was wrong. The Australian air force members of Surveillance Australia were aware of the boat. They had a Havilland Dash-8 make several overflies of what became designated as a SIEV – Suspect Illegal Entry Vessel. The crew radioed back to Coastwatch that the ship was in difficulties. Instead of issuing a distress signal, Australia attempted to palm the problem off on Indonesia.
The spot where the ship sank was in the high seas. But it was in the rescue zone that was the responsibility of the Indonesia rescue authority BASARNAS. The Australians faxed BASARNAS with details of the SIEV. There was no reply. Canberra had no idea what BASARNAS was doing about the problem and took no further action itself other than wait for another flyover the following morning. That flyover removed any ambiguity. The people on board wore orange rags and held up flags that read “SOS”. That should have been the signal for a straightforward search and rescue mission. Instead Australia redoubled efforts to reach BASARNAS by telephone, without success. In the meantime they issued a message to shipping in the area, asking vessels within 10 hours to help.
The Norwegian 44,000 tonne ship, the Tampa, was prosaically named for the Florida Gulf city. The ship was owned by the Norwegian-Swedish Wilhelmson line which had links with Australia since the 19th century. When the Tampa got the message, it had left Australia and was sailing for home in Norway via calls to China and Japan. It was just now four hours from the scene. Arne Rinnan, the ship’s master did not hesitate. He immediately reset course for the Palapa. The Tampa rescued 438 people from the dilapidated boat. They were 369 men, 26 women (two of which were pregnant) and 43 children, the youngest of which was one. Rinnan asked the Coastguard where he should land his new cargo. He himself told the refugees the boat was bound for Singapore. They pleaded to be taken to Christmas Island.
Finally BASARNAS roused and told Rinnan to take the boat to the nearest Indonesian port – Merak. When the refugees heard this, they exploded. They became aggravated and threatened Rinnan if he didn’t take them to Christmas Island. He gave in to their demands. Rinnan did not have any firearms on board. By chance the Australian coastguard rang during this tense exchange. Rinnan told them of the ultimatum he received. The coastguard confirmed it was the captain’s responsibility to decide what was best to do. Rinnan set sail for Christmas. But then the Australian Government got involved. The Department of Immigration contacted the boat and told them they could not enter Australian territorial waters. It backed up the command with a threat of their own – Rinnan would be arrested for people smuggling if he tried to take them ashore.
The decision to stop the Tampa came from the top. John Howard’s head civil servant Max Moore-Wilton was the architect of the plan and Howard himself approved it. Rinnen had no choice. The Tampa turned around and set sail for Merak. But the boatpeople became restless again. Rinnan could not guarantee the continued safety of his ship. He turned for Christmas Island once more.
Australia was not compelled to land these people. International law had a gap which made no nation responsible for rescues on the high seas. Shipping owners, bound by the maritime convention to rescue, were lobbying to change the law. In the meantime Rinnan had arrived outside the harbour at Christmas but was not allowed to land. The refugees could see the lights on the island. They were happy.
But John Howard was now about to make an issue over the Tampa. Australia was getting uncomfortable reminders how close it was to Asia. Boatpeople had been part of the vocabulary since a Vietnamese boat anchored uninvited off Darwin Harbour in 1976. As former diplomat Bruce Grant said “for Australia, history and geography had merged”. But Australia doesn’t like refugees to arrive this way; it prefers to pick its quota out of overseas camps.
The flow of boats was just a trickle through the 1990s. But now it was on the increase. The detention centres of so-called “illegals” in Port Hedland and Baxter were overflowing. Pauline Hanson was making political capital out of the “danger” of Asian immigration. Howard, anxious to win back his supporters, gave Moore-Wilton the job of staunching the flow. Australia tightened security and increased intelligence on the ground. ASIS operatives actively sabotaged boats in ports in Indonesia to prevent them from sailing.
But they were still coming in numbers. Tampa gave Howard the opportunity to turn it around. Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Islands only port, was closed indefinitely. The question on where Rinnan would land was now a matter to be resolved between the governments of Norway and Indonesia. Rinnan, and his country’s government, were appalled. After all, they had answered an Australian distress signal.
Howard knew that the only way to keep the refugees out of Australia was to keep them out of the courts. They could only access the Australian courts if they could make landfall. The Government would eventually excise Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and others from the legal definition of Australia. But that was in future, now, they needed to keep the Tampa out of Australian waters.
So they rang around, calling on favours, to see who else would take on the responsibility. The Pacific Solution was born. New Zealand took some. The impoverished island of Nauru was persuaded to house others. Canberra also engaged its client state Papua New Guinea to build a detention centre on Manus Island. They even asked the UN to approve a transfer to newly independent Timor Leste; much to Howard's disgust, Kofi Annan refused.
Meanwhile the passengers on the Tampa went on hunger strike. The army landed an elite SAS team including a doctor to examine them. They reported the people were on good health. It remained Rinnan’s problem. He decided to ignore all further Australian warning and make an emergency landing at Flying Fish Cove. Under directions from federal cabinet, Australia ignored his MAYDAY. The boat entered the harbour where it was detained by the SAS.
HMAS Arunta was dispatched to the scene. Ostensibly its job would be to tow the Tampa out to sea. Howard tried to pass an emergency bill to make this a legal activity. Kim Beazley refused to support it. Labor was now trapped. Howard took the high moral ground and accused Labor of compromising Australian border integrity. Although the bill was defeated in the Senate without bi-partisan support, Howard had struck gold; the first opinion poll showed 95% support for his “strong action” on border policy. Howard went on talk radio with Alan Jones. Jones fully supported Howard and urged him to take stronger action.
Australia paid Nauru $16.5 million to build a camp on the island. Meanwhile a legal team in Melbourne tried to fight the case here. But they needed a client and access to the refugees was prohibited. While they tried in vain to mount a case, HMAS Arunta arrived at the Tampa. It was followed by HMAS Manoora. The SAS forced the passengers to move to the Manoora where they set sail for PNG. The Tampa was free to go. Arne Rinnan went home to a hero’s reception and government medals in Oslo. The passengers were eventually unloaded in Nauru; the first of many. Operation Relex had begun, it would last in earnest until November 2001. By then Howard had won his political victory.