Acting Out a Tragedy: Australian Perceptions of the MV Tampa
Issue #60, April 2002
Australia is a land of immigrants, but its national attitudes toward immigration have undergone cyclical changes since its inception as a nation in 1901. On August 28 of 2001, the Norwegian cargo-carrier Tampa — burdened with its rescued load of 438 refugees of Afghan, Iraqi, and Iranian origin — sought to enter Australian territorial waters around Christmas Island. In breach of its international obligations of rescue under maritime and refugee law, the Australian authorities detained the Tampa refugees, then transferred them to the small island state of Nauru. Australia subsequently closed the territorial sea around Ashmore Reef and Christmas Island specifically for the purposes of controlling immigration. In all other situations, Australia holds to a 12 nautical mile limit on the geographic reach of its sovereignty. To shore up its position from legal challenge, the Australian government passed retrospective legal acts following the detainment to validate its actions against the Tampa.
After the plight of the Tampa refugees became widely known, it became necessary to justify this breach of international obligations to the Australian public. Cosmetic reasons were cited, such as the right to secure borders against invaders, and the right to, in Prime Minister John Howard's words, "determine who comes into this country and the circumstances they come." The most powerful image the government ultimately drew upon for support of their anti-immigration action was the image of the refugee as an untrustworthy actor, a thespian who is merely feigning the symptoms of needing asylum.
Australia's media representations of immigrants and refugees have historically been colourful. With the gold rushes of 1851 in the southern state of Victoria, Chinese hawkers and merchants ventured into the melee of gold and dust, "smudging" the then very Anglo-Saxon racial landscape. The Australian Bulletin was alarmed at this development, and advanced the following formula, which became renowned: "Australia for the Australians, China for the Chows." Extra taxes were imposed upon Chinese labourers, and anti-Chinese immigration restrictions were enforced. The venal representations soon followed: the Chinese gold rusher as a rapacious thief of gold and white women; the Chinese as octopi, beak-nosed, gambling late into the night at secluded dens on the gold fields. In 1901, a newly-proclaimed Australia celebrated its tribute to racial homogeneity by passing the Immigration Restriction Act. This "White Australia" policy kept the pool of non-native Australians in its virginal state of racial purity for another half century.
In the 1950s, Greek and Italian immigrants began to arrive, and by the 1970s, some Asians also began to immigrate again. The "White Australia" policy was officially repealed in the early 1970s, though its supporters remained. By then, Australia's whiteness had changed color. In the 1980s, new waves of Chinese immigrants appeared, as did their Vietnamese neighbors. This change prompted the Hawke government of the day to see an "Asianised" Australia as inevitable. Australian conservatives heaved a collective sigh of racial disappointment, but the Labor Government of the day held to a non-racial platform of immigration. Cranky conservatism had to wait till 2001 to firmly reimpose its stamp on the flow of immigrants into Australia.
Through the period of John Howard's second conservative government (1999-2001), the incidents of "people smuggling" increased. People trade from the Middle East, where huge sums of money were exchanged between asylum seekers and traffickers for passage on leaky boats, prompted new measures. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock was nervous. He oversaw a series of advertisements aimed at an international audience showing Australia to be infested with lethal animals: crocodiles, jellyfish and unforgiving snakes. He whistlestopped Indonesia and knocked on other Southeast Asian doors in hopes of curtailing the smuggling practice without much evident success. Australia remained a central target for prospective boat people.
Then came the MV Tampa with its cargo of refugees. It was an obvious political opportunity for a government weakened in the polls over unpopular domestic policies. In an alliance with conservative Australia, the government shaped a public image of the new refugee. This refugee was a person who could not be trusted because of their feigned conditions, false identities, and suspected links to a fifth column or underworld.
The refugee-as-actor was a powerful negative metaphor. The thespian was not to be trusted because of the versatile impressions he could command. Like Plato's Republic, conservative Australia did not want actors but honest candidates for citizenship. The order of Howard's Platonist Republic was splendidly singular: each to his own role, an actor to act only in accordance with the truth. Plato intended non-conforming actors to be anointed with myrrh and sent on their way; Howard intended to send them to detention camps across the Pacific: Nauru, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea.
The refugees on the Tampa were successfully pigeonholed into this stereotype. A senator from the One Nation party, Len Harris, claimed he could see into the culinary habits of these potential Australian aspirants, finding there the key to their deception. On August 28 of 2001 he claimed that, "Some of these people, I'm not saying all of them, were probably sitting in a McDonald's or a Kentucky Fried in Indonesia before they boarded that boat." Harris claimed that trafficking trips of asylum seekers were just charter tours across tranquil waters. The actors were assuming too much if they hoped the difficulty of the trips they endured would get them a decent assessment as refugees. They were portrayed as having paid for their own leisure, and now were attempting to beguile the Australian public. As Harris asserted, "These people are very adept in using the emotive to emphasise the human side of this."
Actors are not by nature honest and the vocation of acting, as Plato noted in the Republic, distorts representations of the truth. The immigrants from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq were in the eyes of Australian commentator Robert Devine, unique. Why? They wished to hide behind the cloak of something invisible, to conceal the vacuity of their tall stories. In The Australian of September 3, 2001, Devine obsessed about identity cards, and other traces of objective marking. He wrote, "Of the 4141 who landed during the 2000-01 financial year, 80 per cent had no identity papers whatever." The refugee needed the validating piece of paper to enable Australians to trust them. Identity papers gave the refugee an ontological presence in the eyes of the Australian public, incredulous at those who could destroy their papers as they boarded ships taking them to the antipodes. Most refugees cling to their papers as their most precious possessions, as proof they are somebody, come from somewhere, have a right one day, perhaps, to return home. Paper has an existence of its own, a proof of identity. None were to be trusted without it; they were merely acting out a different role.
The Australian government and media obsession with portraying refugees as dishonest was taken to yet another level: the inability to be sick. The sick, it followed, were acting. The Tampa refugee could not complain to their Australian hosts of illness because honesty and truth required an absence of disease. Islamic refugees on the Tampa had to possess, according to Howard, a phenomenal constitution. That any could possess the traditional conditions of a maladjusted sea journey, such as diarrhoea and nausea, seemed deceptive. The Tampa refugees, sickly and exhausted, proved disappointing for Howard. The radio message from Captain Arne Rinnan was urgent: "As discussed at approx 11.30 today [August 28] the medical situation on board is critical. If it is not addressed immediately people will die shortly."
On the Tampa, 438 refugees were occupying space reserved for fifty passengers. For Howard, though, this was a picture of banality, an everyday occurrence in the transportation saga of refugees. "Every ship has its 450 souls," opined the sage. There was no need for urgent consideration. Australia had its own problems and required refugees to come through more conventional channels: the legal way. This "legal" avenue, however, was not entirely clear. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating explained on Australian television that queues of refugee applicants could only work if regional agreements were in place to process them. Thousands of applicants who lay stagnating in UN processing camps from Afghanistan to Indonesia and Australia rarely saw any of them arrive.
This was, in the opinion of Stephen Pratt, former CARE Australia worker, an acceptable state of affairs. It was necessary for all refugees to languish in the pristine wonders of United Nations hospitality: the "queue jumpers" on the Tampa were not giving their fair-minded brethren in UN camps a "fair go." Boat travel after paying a high sum to a "people smuggler" bypassed the rules of fairness. "I do not see, fair's fair," claimed Professor Helen Hughes of the Centre of Independent Studies. "I do not see that Australia should select the refugees and immigrants by those who can pay."(Friday Forum, ABC Television, August 31, 2001)
The actor motif fortified Australia's public assumptions regarding justice and abuses of justice. The Tampa actors were widely believed to be using Australian goodwill to gain acceptance, goodwill hoodwinked by the performance of Muslim thespians. Was it just, suggested De Anne Kelly of the National Party in the Queensland paper, the Courier Mail (October 6), to let people in who were able to pay their way to Australian shores? The deception here was about social circumstances. The Tampa refugees were riding on tall stories of fear of oppression; yet they had money. A lined purse proved that. "People for whom every dollar counts are more clear-sighted about the fact that boat people who can buy their way over here for $30,000 shouldn't be given an open door," wrote Kelly. The Taliban somehow did not exist in Kelly's imagination as an entity to be feared: a filled purse denied the Tampa refugee political asylum.
The most serious image for the Australian public was the connection made between the Tampa refugees and the September 11 bombings in the United States by Saudi Arabian terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden. Following September 11, the public myth of the deceptive actor became a public myth of the criminal actor. John Stone, Secretary of the National Party, expressed "grave misgivings" towards the continued acceptance of Islamic immigrants. In light of September 11, it became dangerous to parade slogans of multiculturalism and racial polka dots. Two days after the September attacks, Defence Minister Peter Reith told Melbourne radio station 3AW that Uncle Sam had given Australia an encouraging message on firming up immigration policy. This change was needed to prevent refugees from "becoming a pipeline for terrorists."
The thespian model of refugee identity has created a new immigrant in Australia's social consciousness. Such a refugee must be fit, not ill. Travel by air is preferable; any travel by boat must be legally sanctioned by government. It is better to come from a squalid camp in Indonesia with a ticket from the United Nations though that is not an absolute guarantee of acceptance as a refugee in Australia. It is a necessity to change skin colour, but short of that, it is desirable to abandon Islam. Finally, for the purposes of the thespian representation, the next boat person must be utterly poor. Too poor in fact to pay the people smugglers or sustain life upon arrival in Australia.
Binoy Kampmark is presently a graduate student in history at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia Campus, Australia. He received first class honours in both Bachelor of Arts (History) and Bachelor of Laws degrees. He is currently researching international refugee issues and American responses to September 11, 2001.