The great Australian lie?
February 17, 2002 4:51 PM   Subscribe

The great Australian lie? THE Australian navy released only two pictures from more than 100 taken of sailors rescuing boatpeople last October, images the then defence minister seized on to suggest asylum-seekers had thrown children overboard..

It doesn't look good for the ruling government, but Australian public opinion is so heavily weighed against the 'illegal immigrants' that the bulk of voters will move on. They'll forget and probably forgive. After all, we expect our politicians to lie and/or manipulate. Don't we?
posted by skinsuit (14 comments total)
Can someone fill me in on the sides of this matter and what they are saying? I've not been able to get a clear picure on this matter.

Also, if you could throw in the truth (politics being what they are and all).


hadashi - a non-Oz resident
posted by hadashi at 5:10 PM on February 17, 2002

Here's some backstory:

During the election, post 9/11, the topic of illegal immigrants (who the Prime Minister outrageously labelled "potential terrorists") was hot hot hot. Mandatory detention & naval interviention in of the Tampa, the "Pacific Solution" all played on people's worst fears and the great Australian distrust of non-whites.

During this time, in one boat-people incident, the Government released two photos of children "thrown in the water by their parents" in order to "blackmail" the government into bringing them into Australia. of these below, only the fourth was released, of children in the water.


Now it has been revealed that these photos (as part of a large collection of over 110 actually told the story of a boat sinking, and, as the new Shadow Prime Minister said, "Now of course people are going to be in the water if the boat is sinking, including children.".

Howard is, of course, denying everything. He has two catchcries of late - the first, "Nobody showed/told me" (here's another good example) and "it comes down to the definition of regret and an apology...
" (which we last heard over Aboriginal reconciliation). The worst part of this is how the current government has been caught, time and time again lying and cheating it's way through.

What is more (yes, there's more!) the current Government has a wonderful policy of shutting it's people up - for intance new laws designed for "security reasons" will affect parliamentary whistleblowers - which means if you know the government is bullshitting, if you try to tell anyone, they will soon be able to arrest you for doing so.

The Howard Government is full of miserable fuckers.
posted by Neale at 5:18 PM on February 17, 2002

It's a long and convoluted story. I'll greatly simplify it so I'll make my apologies now for any sweeping generalisations. Essentially, there have been boat people trying to land in Australia and claim refugee status. These people mostly end up in detention centers while their applications for residency are examined.

Australian public opinion is that these people should be interred in detention centers. Also, Australian public opinion is mostly anti-asylum seeker. The average Australian doesn't want thousands of refugees getting welfare, training, free housing and so forth.

Anyway, the Australian government has capitalized on this trend. Before the recent federal election the government engaged in strategies that demonised the refugees. One strategy was to claim children were being deliberately thrown overboard from boats in order to manipulate the navy into saving these people and putting them on an Australian vessel.

Photos were released at the time to prove the allegations.

Those photos have now been revealed to be part of a series of photos that illustrate that children were in the water - because their boat was sinking (probably scuttled).

Anyway, now that the government's line about children being deliberately thrown overboard is starting to crumble, everybody is passing the buck and denying they knew anything about the reality of the situation.

I doubt you'll get a clear picture on all of this. But there are a lot of websites around that cover the issue far better than I can in a few minutes.

For the record, I'm a humanitarian. We all have our cultural differences, but we all bleed the same color.

PS Neale. Onya mate. You put it far better than I. Cheers!
posted by skinsuit at 5:31 PM on February 17, 2002

Given how the island's first non-aboriginal inhabitants got to Australia -- and how they, too, were brutalized in the internment camps of their time -- I would have assumed Australians would have a bit more sympathy for these asylum seekers.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:36 PM on February 17, 2002


my father was interned in Australia for 3 years by a Government to suspicious to think otherwise. It's been that way for years. I don't think the Australian public are 100% supportive of the Governments actions regarding Woomera, the boat people, the "Pacific Solution".

Personally, I'm not entirely against mandatory detention, but I am against locking children up for 4 years so a government can sit on its hands and look the other way.

The only good thing to come out of this is the very public beatup the government is receiving in the media - first Woomera, now these photos, and, of course, the latest news on our Governer General allegedly protecting peadophiles in his previous career. The Howard Government has made few friends in the media over the past few years (except Alan Jones) and he's reaping the rewards of his sins now.
posted by Neale at 5:44 PM on February 17, 2002

Ultimately, I don't suppose the pictures will make any difference. Howard, who looked last year like being a lame duck, cynically used the immigration issue to win re-election not long ago, and will likely remain Prime Minister until well after this whole thing blows over.

Personally, I think it's appalling that he was ever PM to start with, but I'm not Australian, so nobody asked me....
posted by geneablogy at 9:11 PM on February 17, 2002

Some points that weren't mentioned by the Aussies above (whom I am not accusing of anything by it) are that the Australian government accepts roughly 85,000 immigrants annually, and is very much a nation of immigrants -- as many as 1 in 4 of its citizens were born overseas. They're not just white descendants of prisoners, anymore. Immigration, annually, represents about 1/2 of 1% of the population of 19 million.

For perspective, the US, with a population of 275 million, accepts around 900,000 immigrants annually, representing about 1/3 of 1% of our own population. (US-bound refugees and asylees together are another 100,000.)

For both nations people who illegally enter the country, and do not receive political asylum, refugee status, are rarely eligible for legal immigration, and may be legally detained until deported to a host country which will accept them. Those in foreign countries who apply for immigration visas are out of luck when the annual quota is achieved.

For either nation getting on a boat and sneaking ashore is illegal (key US exception: Cubans). Getting the coast guard or navy to pick you up in international waters will frequently not even get you even brought to US territory, except in certain cases (e.g. dire medical emergency).

Australia is just one of many economically successful nations (Britain is another key example: immigrants have wired themselves and their families to the bottom of trains passing through the Channel Tunnel, or just tried to walk through) that has recently seen a dramatic increase in the number of persons trying to sneak in and circumvent immigration law.

The Australian debate, to be perfectly fair, as I have seen it from the US, has not centered on legal immigrants at all, but solely on what the government has awkwardly termed "line-jumpers" who try to force the government to a) pick them up at sea, b) released from detention into Australian society. The attempts at ending detention have ranged from hunger protests including sewing each others' mouths shut (minors not excluded! Australian doctors undo these cases very quickly), attempting suicide by hanging, and staging riots. (There have also been riots in Britain.)
posted by dhartung at 11:12 PM on February 17, 2002

re: 'queue jumpers'.

There is no queue to jump. There is no orderly line in front of well-staffed embassies. For example, the Australian post in Nairobi has three staff members (one of them part-time) and deals with thirty four countries.

As far as the throwing children overboard debate goes, it's not so much about boat people, it's about the Howard government manipulating those less well-off for their own advantage (in this case, winning an election).
posted by eoz at 12:03 AM on February 18, 2002

A compilation of the BS coming from Howard's travesty of a government (snipped from a bright cold day)

PM told to face press
The Australian

A report released yesterday by Mr Howard revealed the Government knew one month before last year's election that claims children were thrown overboard from a sinking boat were untrue.

The great 'children overboard' lie
Sydney Morning Herald

John Howard's own department, and the Defence Department, were told just days after the Government's explosive claims that children were thrown off an asylum seekers' boat that the allegations were false.

On October 10 - the day the then defence minister, Peter Reith, released photographs of children in the water, claiming the story was true - government officials knew it was false, two reports released yesterday reveal.

Reith blames bungling bureaucrats
Sydney Morning Herald

"It was not raised with me as to whether or not children had been thrown overboard - that's the first thing," Mr Reith told ABC radio.

"And in fact as the report demonstrates quite clearly from my conversation with the brigadier in Darwin, even at the end of October and in fact some weeks later, I was still under the impression that there was no question that children were thrown overboard.

"The report confirms that no report was in fact ever given to me and that is a failing in the system."

Creating a cocktail of cover-up
Michael Gordon - The Age

Mr Howard's department was told within three days of the story breaking that there was no evidence. But this message was apparently ignored when then defence minister Peter Reith released the "proof" - pictures of children in the water.

By 11am the next day, October 11, Reith's office had been told the pictures were taken the day after the imagined episode, when the boat sank. Reith insists this message never reached him.

How could all this happen? A combination of incompetence, negligence, misunderstanding and bureaucratic failure by officials under pressure played a part. The most potent ingredient in the cocktail of cover-up was the political opportunism of a government seeing electoral advantage.

How Australia was fed a fib that grew into a gross distortion
Marian Wilkinson - Sydney Morning Herald

His version is disputed by one of the few heroes of this sorry saga, Brigadier Gary Bornholt, the military adviser in defence public affairs. Critically, he kept diary notes of his conversation with the minister's office. He recalls just before Reith went on radio, warning the press secretary that the photographs may have been "misinterpreted". His advice was dismissed.

By that time, Reith's office had fed the photos to every media outlet that wanted this new "evidence" of the Government's most potent story in the election campaign.

That night, senior navy officials watched with deep concern when the photos appeared on the 7.30 Report. ...

Every day after this, journalists called Reith's office asking if the photos were genuine. No answer - for the entire election campaign.

Brigadier Michael Silverstone's account of his conversation with the then defence minister Peter Reith
SMH Front Page

THE BRIGADIER: Minister, the video does not show a child being thrown into the water.
THE MINISTER:Well, we'd better not see the video then.

An absolute scandal every way you look at it


...who can believe the government's excuse that the reports got lost in offices, so ministers never knew they had misled the public.

I think we can safely call that the "dog ate my homework" excuse.

Now the cons and lies are coming out, you can expect a savage turn by the Canberra press gallery. They now look like they have been played for mugs. And don't think all those senior journalists will take kindly to being lied to.

posted by lagado at 1:09 AM on February 18, 2002

dhartung, the point here is that the vast majority of these people have already been determined to be legitimate asylum seekers or refugees. No one is disputing this, not even the government. The controversy here is about how the government is seeking to circumvent its international responsibilities as well as the inhumane conditions endured by the detainees, particularly minors.

How Government Policy Violates United Nations Conventions on the Treatment of Refugees
posted by lagado at 1:34 AM on February 18, 2002

Plus the whole "minors have had their lips sown shut by adults" has also turned out to be a myth. Minors may have had their lips stiched (often 1 stich - no more than a lip ring) by themselves, but no adult did it - another government facbrication.
posted by Neale at 2:30 AM on February 18, 2002

I was just about to post this link.

Australia's immigration policy is deplorable, but that's not the issue here.

What's at the heart of this problem is the Government's willingness to vilify asylum seekers and spy on Australians for its own political purposes. the new Shadow Prime Minister said...
Otherwise known as the Opposition Leader. ;-)

...has recently seen a dramatic increase in the number of persons trying to sneak in...
You're right - from about 1000 boat people the year before mandatory detention was introduced to a whopping 4000-odd now...

Personally, I think it's appalling that he was ever PM to start with, but I'm not Australian, so nobody asked me....
Here, here!

Given how the island's first non-aboriginal inhabitants got to Australia...
We are all Boat People!

For either nation getting on a boat and sneaking ashore is illegal...
In Australia, it is legal to arrive by any means, including by leaky boat or by plane, for the purposes of seeking asylum. Therefore they have committed no offence, and yet are detained without charge or trial.
posted by robcorr at 3:32 AM on February 18, 2002

Actually, there's a fair few people who are changing their spots, saying "oh! we were hoodwinked by the government, maybe these people are human after all". Which is nice. But I can't help but thinking these soft/hard-nuts, typically chardonnay white collar lefties, were quite happy to think the worst of the refugees late last year around election time, so why were they so happy to chew on the Lib's bullshit?

I believe that detaining people for three years in a remote location whilst the authorities prevaricate over their state is wrong. It shouldn't take that long: if they're eligible, and likely to get killed or persecuted if we send them back, give them a visa. if they're not, send them back. Some of the asylum seekers the Australian government diverted via the Pacific Solution (ha!) have already been processed by New Zealand authorities and allowed to stay.

The other thing is: our illegal immigrant problem is fairly small compared with Mediterranean nations like France or Italy, as well the Chunnel thing and the US/Mexican frontier.
Or even Pakistan, which is having to deal with something like 2 million. We can easily deal with a few thousand a year. It's just that we're just being selfish.

As for the "message" that the govt is trying to send, I have no doubt the way a lot of boat people saw it is: Australia's still got to be better than here (typically Iraq or Afghanistan), in spite of the risks. The only way developed countries will ever deter people from poorer countries attempting to enter is if they drag their own societies down to the same level, which seems to be behind the Liberal governments tactic of transforming our country into a police state (oops, there goes Godwin's Law) under the guise of security. Obviously, I do not see this as an acceptable solution.

A better solution would obviously be to drag these poorer countries up. But that would involve some heavy use of international justice, and I don't see a lot of that happening in the short to medium-term, whilst the pit bull terrier of US militarism is off the leash. (either splendidly isolated, or playing world's policemen, there's no middle ground for them, is there?)
posted by GrahamVM at 7:03 AM on February 18, 2002

A very good essay on this issue was written by Greg Egan, a good Australian sci-fi writer
"no sugar"
posted by Iax at 7:52 PM on February 18, 2002

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