November 29th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: 40 million Aussies? The immigration debate revisited

COVER STORY RESPONSE : No immigration policy without an industry policy

EDITORIAL: Time to reform super

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Illegal immigration returns as an election issue

MURRAY DARLING: Backdown on water confiscation plan

LAW: United Nations delays human cloning ban

QUEENSLAND: Labor falters, but where is the opposition?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Poleaxed / Tax Avoidance / Collateral damage

LETTERS: Destruction of Australia's textile industry

LETTERS: The bushfire nightmare

LETTERS: Bushfires and the insurance industry

LETTERS: Jim Cairns: the real legacy

LETTERS: Organised opposition

LETTERS: Call for funding to support the unborn

SBS TV should not telecast Vietnamese communist propaganda

ASIA: Why Japan has lifted its military profile

BOOKS: Death as a salesman: What's wrong with Assisted Suicide, by Brian Johnston

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Illegal immigration returns as an election issue

by News Weekly

News Weekly, November 29, 2003
Turning point elections have a habit of acquiring their own mythology in Australian politics, and creating invaluable history lessons for all politicians.

But it is also true that they only go a certain way to predicting the future.

1972 was the "It's Time" election narrowly ending 23 years of conservative rule; 1993 and 1998 were the two GST elections - one in which the Australian people rejected and one which they reluctantly accepted a radical new tax system.

Further back, 1969 is now known as the "Don's Party" election, after the David Williamson play about Labor's anti-climactic and inexplicable loss; 1954 was the Petrov election which followed the dramatic expulsion of the Russian spy; while 1949 was the bank nationalisation election.

And 1975 was, well, simply 1975, the most momentous and dramatic election in modern Australia politics.

National psyche

Each one has become part of Australian political folklore from which political parties and strategists mine nuggets about the national psyche.

They are also proof that no two elections are the same.

The most recent election, in 2001, which saw John Howard win his third straight victory, will be known forever as the "Tampa" election.

It was won on the back of a political landscape electrified by the twin tower terror and boatloads of asylum seekers coming to Australia.

The Tampa people became the symbol of a much larger threat to Australia from overseas terror and from unwelcome invasion, and the Howard Government seized on the situation to show that it would stand firmest against such threats.

Labor initially hesitated at supporting the Coalition's draconian policies to drive away the boat people, but then buckled in the face of public support for the measures, which included the implementation of an "iron shield" of navy and air force around Australia's north.

John Howard broke many conventions in the lead-up to the 2001 poll, used the Australian Defence Force for patently political ends, and personally enacted his own "Pacific Solution" to find a place, any place other than Australia, to install the boat people until their bona fides could be determined.

We now know that others in his team, namely Peter Reith and possibly other senior ministers and advisers, went further and permitted the peddling of misinformation about refugees throwing their children overboard.

History's verdict was that Howard won, but curiously in the end, by a fairly narrow margin, and that is the key to the present situation.

We have now turned full circle. Another election looms, another boat has arrived, and another round of extraordinary measures has been put in place to ensure that no more boats will arrive in Australia over the coming months.

The questions are now: will it work again, and has anything changed? Will the Tampa election be repeated?

Howard won the 2001 election because the Australian people agreed that a tough policy on illegal immigrants was not only justifiable, but vital, and that any political party that had an open-door policy could not be trusted to run the country.

Even the new ALP president Carmen Lawrence admits the world would be anarchic if there were no borders at all.

"Everyone recognises that people need to be checked for identity and health and security," she said during her first interview in the job. In this sense nothing has changed.

However, Labor has constructed a policy which maintains strong border protection combined with a more humanitarian approach to people in detention.

The Coalition has begun closing down Woomera, the harshest and most remote immigrant centre, and opened a more hospitable and acceptable centre in Adelaide to house women and children asylum seekers caught in legal no-man's land.

Furthermore, apart from a couple of small exceptions, including the most recent one with just 14 people on board, the illegal boats have stopped coming.

Though John Howard and Philip Ruddock can claim some credit for this situation, the SIEV X tragedy is the principle reason for the end of the people smuggling trade.

This is because the illegals are now too afraid of the risks.

The emergence of details of the SIEV X tragedy on September 19, 2001, in which 353 people died off the coast off Java, including 146 children and 142 women, has also put a shadow over the issue. Just 40 people survived the tragedy.


About 25 out of 430 Tampa people have been accepted into Australia and, in the end, they will probably attain permanent residency and Australian citizenship.

Government action to excise islands off from the mainland of Australia seems a somewhat dubious measure and a convenient legal fiction, which must surely be challenged in the courts. Either people seeking asylum have arrived in Australia or they have not.

It is also somewhat apparent that the Government has not maintained effective naval forces off North Western Australia to intercept people on the high seas. This gives Labor the opportunity of arguing its case that a Coast Guard is the necessary ultimate deterrent against boat people.

In short there have been shifts on both sides.

Mr Ruddock, now Attorney-General, is maintaining his post as the Government's repeller-in-chief of asylum-seekers.

He is warning that the recent arrival on Melville Island was a warning, a shot across the bow by the people smugglers.

It is doubtful that people believe him, or that there is the same fear of an armada of boat people.

The Australian populace has in all probability moved on from the last election, and developed a more refined position to the asylum seeker question.

While the Coalition tries to create the drama of another Tampa situation, and the Labor Party frets and does cartwheels to show they are in no way weak on the issue, the public have other more immediate concerns.

Given the fact that Kim Beazley managed to peg back considerable ground at the last election, the Coalition would be greatly mistaken if it pins its hopes on a repeat of the 2001 poll.

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