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Fool me once…

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.


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  1. Jollyjumbuck

    Yes they were all lies and he got away with it too. Perhaps Australians will not be taken as fools the second time around.

  2. Jollyjumbuck

    We were lied to by GW Bush, John Howard and Tony Blair and that is why the world is up to it’s neck in refugees. Seeing as it was Bush’s lies to begin with why not just send the refugees to his doorstep and let him deal with them. I’m over it! It’s no wonder Australians are fed up with this issue. We can’t save the world. If the USA would just stay out of other countries’ businesses the world would be a more peaceful place. They destroy everything they touch!

  3. kate ahearne

    Thanks for this, Kaye. As usual, wonderful work. Tried to Tweet it, but the twitter button doesn’t seem to be working.,

  4. Harquebus

    This is Ustraya mate!
    There are no restrictions on the number of times we can be fooled.

    Since primary school when, I witnessed the propaganda machine fool this country into voting for our crappy national anthem, I have witnessed that machine fool it time and time again and I don’t expect anything to change anytime soon.

  5. Blinkyewok

    I have a sinking feeling that Abbotts scare campaign combined with outrageous Murdoch headlines will work once again. This would likely be the end of democracy in Australia.

  6. deanyz1

    Just to make it clear to those who’ve never heard the saying.
    “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” – Randall Terry

  7. virtualnonsense

    Great as always. I do truly believe that voters *will* be fooled again. And I weep for where we’re heading…

  8. Kaye Lee

    Young people don’t read Murdoch. At the last election there were between 1.2-1.4 million eligible people who did not register to vote. There were also over 800,000 informal votes (from memory). We REALLY need to help our young people understand the importance of their vote because it is them who are under attack – climate change, housing affordability, youth unemployment, deregulated uni fees, income inequity, access to welfare, two-tier education and health system….

    We need some concerts by our concerned musicians, our artists and performers who are having their funding slashed – inspire our young people to fight.

  9. Michael Taylor

    Are you on a mobile device, Kate?

  10. Volks39

    I think that many more flags should be used. This time in front to blot him out

  11. Win jeavons

    Kaye, who is going to teach our youth that democracy in Oz and their future lives depend 0n their INFORMED votes ? We need the ABC to do that, because the popular press won’t . They prefer an oligarchy they can control.

  12. mars08

    How’s about we aim for informed voters… who are engaged, compassionate and who don’t watch A Current Affair, Border Security, Bondi Rescue or NCIS…

  13. Kaye Lee


    That is my aim in typing my fingers to the bone. I am also a teacher and I know you have to engage your audience to get a message across. Music has done this in the past with young people. I remember watching the Live Aid concert and I always get a bit teary at Michael Jackson’s “We are the World” because when my daughter did some volunteer work at an orphanage in Cambodia, all the kids lined up and sang that song. You have probably seen this clip by Leo Sayer. Wake them up…get the message across however we can.

  14. Florence nee Fedup

    Remember court papers I was writing on behalf of a toddler, who managed the third over dose on mum’s take away methadone The Psychiatrist report made simple statement that won the case, was hard to repute. First time unlucky. Second time careless. Third time criminal.

    If Abbott gets votes third time around, it would be a criminal act played on our democracy.

  15. Kaye Lee

    I also love this one….instead of “Koch’s are”…substitute Rinehart

  16. Zathras

    This article caused me to remember something I heard about Howard many years ago.

    “It’s said that Winston Churchill was a Statesman. He called on the people of Britain to take on the awesome might of the Third Reich.

    Some people consider John Howard to also be a Statesman.

    John Howard called on the SAS to bravely take on women and children in a leaky boat.”

  17. Phi

    Kaye Lee, your comment resonates with me:

    ” We REALLY need to help our young people understand the importance of their vote because it is them who are under attack – climate change, housing affordability, youth unemployment, deregulated uni fees, income inequity, access to welfare, two-tier education and health system….”

    I also like your proposal: “We need some concerts by our concerned musicians, our artists and performers who are having their funding slashed – inspire our young people to fight.”

    Your writing is extremely focussed and I am grateful for your contributions.

  18. Kaye Lee

    During the preparations for the 1999 Australian-led UN East Timor engagement, what Howard regarded as the sycophantic pro-Asian tilt of his predecessors was rapidly discarded. Under Howard’s leadership and inspiration, the republic was rejected in November 1999 at a national referendum. And, because of his government’s unwillingness to offer a formal apology to the Aborigines or to countenance the hitherto uncontroversial idea of Aboriginal self-determination, the decade-long quest for a symbolic act of reconciliation, at the moment of the centenary of Federation, was nonchalantly scuttled at the Sydney Opera House in May 2000.

    The re-imagining of Australia on the basis of multiculturalism, Asian integration, republicanism and reconciliation was associated, in Howard’s mind, politically with the Keating government; socially with those cosmopolitan left-leaning elites, who still treated ‘little Johnny Howard’ with considerable contempt; ideologically with the mindset now almost universally known as ‘political correctness’. In order to conquer Keating, the elites and political correctness, as is now evident in hindsight, only one decisive blow was needed. It was delivered in the government-manufactured Tampa crisis of late August 2001, where the Royal Australian Navy, assisted by crack SAS troops, mounted a successful two-month military campaign whose purpose was to prevent fishing boats with refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia reaching Australian territory.

    In striking this blow Howard transformed Australian politics. By exposing the moral gulf between its working-class and left-leaning middle-class supporters, Tampa completely destabilised the Labor Party. By exciting Hanson enthusiasts, with the military repulsion of refugees, Howard destroyed One Nation almost overnight, by satisfying the political appetite on which it had fed. And by treating the humanitarian considerations of old-style liberals with such complete disdain, he converted the party of Deakin-Menzies-Fraser into the party of economic rationalism and populist conservatism that it remains to this day.

  19. Kaye Lee

    Interesting comparison when Howard looks good

    DAVID HICKS: Hi, I’m David Hicks. When you were Prime Minister, you left me in Guantanamo Bay for five and a half years. During that time I was detained without charge for a long time; I was denied a fair trial; I was tortured. Do you believe that I was treated humanely and that the military commission was a fair system? Thank you.

    JOHN HOWARD: Well, I’d make a couple of responses to David Hicks. The first is that isn’t it a great country that allows this kind of exchange to occur and this is not the sort of exchange that would occur in other countries and in dictatorships and it ought to make all of us – whatever our views are about my government’s policies concerning Mr Hicks, it ought to make all of us very proud that we live in a country that allows that sort of exchange.

  20. DC

    Murdoch’s Daily Tele & its interstate counterparts are not designed to be “purchased”. It’s a loss making propaganda distributing venture designed to be passively taken in by the uninterested voter who walks past the headlines every time they step into a servo/suermarket/cofee shop/McDonalds & gets subliminally influenced.

  21. Kaye Lee

    Anne Summers also points out the similarity to Menzies anti-communist hysteria concluding:

    “The prime minister has been impervious to arguments about the intelligence and propaganda value former terrorists could provide. He just wants them all to stay away.

    These go-for-the-jugular combative instincts might come at the expense of effectiveness. If we really want to stop young Australians from being radicalised, then shouldn’t we be using potential assets such as ex-militant Zaky Mallah to warn off Muslim teenagers from signing up with the jihadists? Instead, for short-term political gain, Mr Abbott has gone all out to use Mallah to turn up the political temperature, scorch the national broadcaster and anyone else who gets in the way on this perilous political warpath.

    As a strategy it’s full on. And it’s risky.

    It might secure victory in the battle. But will it win the war?”

  22. keerti

    You can fool some of the people some of the time,
    Some of the time you can fool some of the people, You can fool the austryan voter all of the time!
    With a little negativity!

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