Watching the Abbott government is like watching the rerun of a movie with the same script but worse actors.
Consider Howard in 2001 as he approached an election. The government had performed very badly in opinion polls and a series of by-elections throughout 2001, largely due to a slump in the dollar and loss of business confidence.
In late August, a Norwegian ship, the MV Tampa, picked up 440 stranded asylum-seekers when their boat sank in the Indian Ocean. The Tampa planned to bring the boat people to Australia in accordance with their wishes, but the Howard government refused to allow the ship access to an Australian port. The issue of border protection gained strong prominence, as unauthorised migration had been increasing for some years.
The former second-in-command of the SAS counter-terrorism squad, Labor MP Peter Tinley, said sending SAS troops in to deal with the Tampa was a complete overreaction.
“I can’t help but feel the PM John Howard viewed the SAS as something that would resonate politically to the message of border security,” he said. “You can’t amp it up more in the public’s mind than saying ‘We’re going to send in the SAS, we’ll show you how tough we are on border security’.”
The former head of Military Public Affairs, Brigadier Gary Bornholt, says the asylum seekers on board were never a threat to Australia.
“In Defence it wasn’t a big deal, because these numbers of people were very, very small and that’s why they didn’t represent a security threat,” he said.
This was followed by public allegations by Howard government ministers in October 2001, in the lead-up to a federal election, that seafaring asylum seekers had thrown children overboard in a presumed ploy to secure rescue and passage to Australia.
The Australian Senate Select Committee for an inquiry into a certain maritime incident later found that no children had been at risk of being thrown overboard and that the government had known this prior to the election. The government was criticised for misleading the public and cynically “(exploiting) voters’ fears of a wave of illegal immigrants by demonising asylum-seekers”.
Although reports indicated that the strain of being towed was the proximate cause of the asylum seeker boat eventually sinking, in 2007, John Howard asserted that the asylum seekers “irresponsibly sank the damn boat, which put their children in the water”.
The government’s handling of this and other events involving unauthorised arrivals worked to its advantage. The Tampa affair had led the government to adopt stricter border protection measures to prevent unauthorised arrivals from reaching Australia by boat. Polls indicated the measures had public support. The government was able to portray itself as “strong” on border protection measures and its opponents as “weak”.
When it came to information made public by the Defence Department, former head of publicity Jenny McKenry revealed details were carefully filtered.
“We were told that there was to be nothing in the public forum which would humanise these people. We were quite stunned,” she said.
In addition, on 11 September, the Al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon thrust national security to the forefront of the election campaign. Howard, who was in Washington at the time, immediately committed to unqualified support for George W. Bush.
”Certainly, being on the spot had a powerful effect on me. I knew how shocked and bewildered the Americans were, although everybody was very calm. Everybody understood that this was a game-changer.”
The day after the attack Howard flew back to Australia with US Ambassador Tom Schieffer on Air Force Two, the Vice President’s aircraft, which had been made available to him. After a telephone conversation with his Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, while “high above the Pacific Ocean”, Howard informed Schieffer that, for the first time in 50 years, the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked. In America’s hour of need Australia would not stand idly by. Shortly after, President Bush announced the War on Terror and signalled that a war with Afghanistan was not far off.
The “legally nonsensical” – to use Robert Garran’s phrase – but symbolically rich decision to invoke the ANZUS Treaty resembled more a romantic, feudal oath of fealty than a coolly considered diplomatic act. From that moment until the present day, during the war on Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and now the fight against IS, Australia would prove itself to be the most impeccably faithful ally of the US in the War on Terror.
According to the US National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, Australia “clamoured”, as it turned out successfully, to be invited to participate in the invasion force. The moment John Howard had been waiting for during his entire political life had finally arrived.
Canberra bombarded us with tales of Iraq’s vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction; Iraq’s well-developed nuclear plans; Saddam’s links with Osama bin Laden; the Saddam–Hitler analogy; the irrelevance of the UN; the perfidy of the French; the futility of weapons inspections.
The immediate reaction in the polls included a record high approval rating for a Liberal prime minister and overwhelming support for committing Australian troops to Afghanistan – a fact that did not slip by Tony Abbott who was himself in danger of losing his seat of Warringah to a very good independent in the upcoming election.
Fears of terrorism were mixed in with the asylum seeker debate – a ploy criticised by the retired Commander of Australian Theatre with the Navy, Vice Admiral Chris Ritchie.
“It seemed to me to be a funny way to get to Australia if you were a terrorist. There are other easier ways to get into Australia than spend six months in Nauru,” he said.
The polls turned around considerably by election day on November 10, 2001 and the Howard government won a third term convincingly.
Ironically, at the time, the Australian Wheat Board was paying bribes to the Iraqi government. The Howard government either knew what was happening and is covering it up or was guilty of culpable negligence and incompetence.
Abbott’s script is identical even though his backdrops are flashier (or is that flaggier), even down to begging to be the first to go fight and a disturbing willingness to hand over money to corrupt regimes. I can only hope that Abbott’s rerun gets panned by the critics and that voters walk out on his theatre of terror. Fool me once….
To paraphrase our Prime Minister for fear and loathing:
The voters are coming for the government with a simple message: we will not “submit”. You can’t negotiate with a government like this. You can only fight it.