Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Lest we forget...

With a federal election due in the next few months (forget that US sideshow!) , I notice that a few political chickens are being released to see if they'll come home to roost.

One issue in particular that needs to be given strong consideration is the Truth Overboard affair. For those non-Australians who might have been distracted by more riveting events on Sep. 11, 2001, this incident needs to be given a bit of context, so bear with me.

In 1996, a certain independent member for Oxley got up on her hind legs and delivered a maiden speech which bought our attitudes towards immigration and racism firmly into focus. It was disappointing to see the wave of redneck adulation which met this speech. It was downright alarming to note the silence with which the Howard government initially reacted; for it was not the silence of disapproval. In time, as her views became more clearly rabid, the government did denounce Hanson, she went on to found her own party, and more or less self-destructed.
However, I remember that initial silence.

In 2001, the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, picked up a boatload of refugees and attempted to bring them to Christmas Island, where they could apply for refugee status in Australia. Admission was refused. In fact, the incident triggered a huge flurry as offshore reefs and territories were listed as Exclusion Zones. The events of September 11 overtook these unfortunates, and made it much easier to demonise them as Al Qaeda moles.

This rhetoric became ever more shrill as election time drew near, culminating in a report that children were being deliberately being thrown overboard by refugees in order to force the Australian coastguard to take them in. It was latched on to by the then government as proof that these people were deserving of no sympathy, and that being put in remote Guantanamo Bay-like detention centres was really too good for them.

Questions were being asked about the accuracy of this report on the eve of the 2001 election, the government nevertheless brazened it out and, in the atmosphere of uncertainty following Sep 11, won. The report was subsequently found to be false. The politicians insisted that they were misinformed, but it revealed their xenophobia in stark detail. The best interpretation I can put on it is that they wanted to believe the report.

We are now three years on from those events. Another election is imminent, and it is being alleged that Howard was well aware of the falsehood of the Children Overboard report. To me, the timing of this revelation is unimportant. For I remember.

I can only hope that other people also remember.


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