Click for menu
Al Jazeera Broadcaster's logo
New outlook: The Doha-based Al Jazeera Network broadcasting operations in Qatar offer a fresh and less Anglo-centric perspective on world affairs.

Howard, Iraq and Refugees

News from the outside, looking in

Sometimes it seems we have arrived at a situation in Australia, where we need to look at overseas and international media outlets to get an outsider's assessment of the state of affairs in our country.

The distortion and 'toning down' of most Australian media, 'assisted' by a million dollar government-owned and supported PR machinery has created an environment where we cannot always receive a full and openly stated overview of what Australia is up to.

Sometimes it is the BBC, at other times a Canadian News Service, and on this occasion it's the relatively new Qatar-based Al Jazeerah news network.

And although Mr William Hardiker is an Australian journalist and activist, it is his independent and critical outlook broadcast from the Al Jazeerah network that provides a much-needed departure from the well-established Australian media consensus. Happy reading!


2 October 2003: People-Smuggling: National Myths and Realities - "New sources of people flows to Australia are bound to emerge, sometimes with little or no warning. Significantly, the scale of potential flows from non-traditional sources like India, Indonesia and Africa are far in excess of anything Australia has ever experienced," says ONA whistleblower Andrew Wilkie.

Here are two of the Children Overboard kids...24 July 2003: The Unthrown Kids: All leaked Kids Overboard photos - They show gratefulness. They show fathers who are tired, but moved. They show mothers who smile, in deep love for their children, and thankfulness for the rescue by HMAS Adelaide. Forgotten are the rounds of machine gun fire, the cannon shots, aimed over the bow of the dilapidated boat.

23 July 2003: John Faulkner, The Aftermath of the CMI Inquiry - "John Howard indicated that he was prepared to spend whatever money it took to deter boatpeople from arriving on the Australian mainland. But have there been other costs? What has been the cost of the Howard Government's disruption programme in Indonesia - not just the financial cost? I intend to keep asking questions until I find out. I intend to keep pressing for an independent judicial inquiry into these very serious matters."

Howard's war to liberate a people he vilified

By William M Hardiker
Al Jazeerah
Opinion, August 2003
1 September 2003

Earlier this year Australian Prime Minister John Howard committed, in the name of the people, his country and its military to the Bush administrations war on Iraq. He made this decision with neither parliamentary debate nor public consultation. Approximately 80% of the population opposed any war without a UN mandate and approximately 65% with UN authorization. The case for war presented by the US and UK to the security council failed as common sense and reason indicated it would. But PM Howard had "locked in" Australia and assured the US its unequivocal support with or without a UN security council resolution authorizing the use of force to disarm Iraq.

Although denying vigorously and publicly such accusations from skeptical journalists, who despite their efforts to force an admission from Howard, were rewarded only with political trickery, double-speak and avoidance tactics. He steadfastly maintained that no decision had, or could be made until all diplomatic efforts had been exhausted, and weapons inspections allowed time to complete their assessment of Iraq's "imminent" capacity to threaten the civilized world.

The truth was that Howard had pledged Australian support to the Bush administrations war agenda, regardless of any diplomatic efforts or the results of Hans Blix's weapons inspections (which - it must be noted - were producing "significant compliance"). In fact, well before the case for war was even put before the UN Howard's position was completely in line with the Bush administrations determination to invade and occupy Iraq - come what may. Diplomatic efforts on the part of the US and UK as suspected, have now been confirmed mere formalities. Nothing other than a charade agreed to under pressure from Prime Minister Blair whose domestic population, almost unanimously, opposed any attack on Iraq. Few amongst us are prepared to argue otherwise, I think.

Prior to August 2001, a relatively small number of people seeking asylum in Australia had been arriving intermittently to Australian shores. Most had fled oppressive and brutal regimes in the Middle East and Afghanistan, their last port of call being Indonesia before finally arriving in Australia.

These perilous and desperate passages were often made in rough seas, and in dangerously over-crowded, un-seaworthy boats. On arrival, Howard government policy required them to be immediately locked up under mandatory detention legislation in prison-like facilities whist their asylum 'status' was determined and a decision made regarding their fate. It was not uncommon for this assessment process to extend for well over a year. Thus, these innocent victims of war and oppression, guilty of no crime but treated like criminals, languished for extended and indefinite periods in harsh, dehumanizing 'detention centers' privately operated by U.S security firms.

The Palapa reaches the MV Tampa

On the 26th August 2001, a Norwegian shipping vessel arrived off the coast of Australia carrying, as well as its usual cargo, 438 asylum seekers mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq whom it had rescued from a sinking boat off Christmas Island, and within Australian territorial waters. In clear breach of international maritime law, the Howard government disallowed the ship, the MV Tampa, to dock in any Australian port. The Captain was also refused permission to hand over these traumatized victims, including men, women and children whilst simultaneously Indonesia, their last point of departure denied them the right to return. The resulting stalemate extended over a week, whilst the government sought to justify its inhumane position, and complete lack of compassion, whist the asylum seekers - some in need of medical treatment - and the Captain of the Tampa sat immobile off the coast.

Because of the government's prior and ongoing campaign of vilification and demonization of people from the Middle East, public opinion was divided. Thinly veiled suggestions from biased media alluded to the absurd possibility that "terrorists" might be amongst these people and encouraged the spectre of suspicion, hostility and prejudice to raise its ugly head amongst a misinformed public. The question as to why a "terrorist" would risk a perilous journey to Australia in a leaky boat, rather do that which would seem logical and simply purchase an airline ticket, was not asked.

Eventually, under international scrutiny and condemnation, the Tampa was "stormed" by special operations forces in full riot uniforms and equipment, on the basis that the Captain of the ship was being threatened. (Clearly this action was designed for maximum media impact and exposure in order to create the false perception that these victims were hostile and dangerous).

Finally, the frail, the exhausted and the traumatized were taken by an Australian Navy ship to Christmas Island, less than 100 kilometers off the coast of Australia where they were "processed". The entire scenario was managed by the government in a manner which assured Australian public opinion would be turned against these people and any future arrivals. People seeking asylum were also ascribed the usual derogatory and offensive labels such as "illegals", "boat people" and "queue-jumpers". The latter implying that they had somehow pushed their way to the front of some mythical list of "legal" asylum seekers who were quietly waiting their turn to apply for refugee status in Australia. The suggestion that such a "list" even existed was unanimously denied by humanitarian agencies, though common sense would suggest that one did not, to those with some idea of how the law as applied to nations acceptance of asylum seeking people operates. One wonders if the Jews fleeing Europe from the Nazi's had their names on such a "list", or were they too "queue-jumpers"?

On September 11, Howard was in Washington for scheduled talks with President Bush. He returned to Australia on the morning of the terrorist attacks, but not before indulging in a mutual ideology back-patting session with fellow Neo-Conservatives in the Administration. An Australian Federal election had been called for November and the opinion polls were pointing towards almost certain defeat of the two-term Howard government by the ALP (Australian Labor Party). Mr Howard however returned home, with a new spring in his step and a new agenda. As the world absorbed the explanations for the events of September 11, and with the November elections approaching, the Howard government shelved all domestic policy and ensured the agenda of the two party race between Howard's liberals and the Labor Party led by Kim Beazley became singular; one of who was perceived the strongest in terms of national security.

The recently introduced and majority opposed GST (goods and service tax) by the Howard government was widely predicted to cost them the election. In response to this, Howard stepped up his campaign centered around the politics of fear and insecurity, the promotion of xenophobia and racism, and the vilification of Afghani and Middle Eastern asylum seekers, whilst simultaneously talking up militarism in the post-September 11 climate. One incident in particular, remarkable for its total absence of morality or ethical conduct at the highest levels of government involved a number of asylum seekers who were accused by the government and Prime Minister himself, of throwing their children overboard into the sea.

As one would expect, immediate evidence was demanded and from that point onwards a sordid litany of lies and deceit unfolded. After weeks of political too-ing and fro-ing between the government, the Labour Party and the media, as well as the presentation of fabricated photographs as conclusive 'evidence', the accusations were revealed to have been totally and reprehensibly invented by the governments highest level ministers. The public outrage and condemnation one would expect was conspicuously absent, and given that the people were lied to so blatantly, the repercussions minimal - the defence minister disappeared and a senior Navy commander was reprimanded. Howard emerged unscathed.

The people, so immersed as they were in the slur campaign were more than prepared to forgive all, and as a consequence the Prime Minister's popularity remained high. What was fabricated into a picture of inhuman depravity by a depraved people capable even of drowning their own children, was in fact an act of desperation. The children were held up in the air in a desperate bid to show the Australian Navy frigate which had already fired more than fifty rounds of ammunition across the bow of their small vessel, that children were on board.

The new Liberal Party election campaign slogan became "We decide who comes to this country, and the means by which they come". Television and newspapers portrayed a defiant, fist-clenching Howard. (One should understand that attitudes on issues of racism and bigotry have long been associated with John Howard. Early in his career during the late 1960s and 70s he opposed Australia accepting Vietnamese refugees from a US war which he supported and to which Australia also signed up for).

The government's absolute lack of compassion, demonization and vilification of these people had returned the hoped-for dividend amongst the electorate. Predictably the Howard government was re-elected by a substantial majority for a third term by whipping up the basest racist sentiment. Australia's international reputation plummeted to unknown levels of antipathy. Its Prime Minister had given racism and xenophobia the green light and added to this a highly exaggerated level of threat to the nation from acts of terrorism. The widespread distribution of misinformation and propaganda created much unnecessary fear and insecurity. Suspicion and prejudice prevailed amongst the population, quite an achievement, considering that Australians can generally be characterized by their lack of prejudice, openness and the fact that many diverse cultures have co-exist harmoniously within the country.

On October twenty 2001 a boat (now referred to as SIEV X) left Indonesia overcrowded with 394 mainly men, women and children from predominately Iraq and the occupied Palestinian territories, but also some from Iran and Algeria. They were attempting to reach Australia in order to apply for refugee status. 350 drowned when their unseaworthy vessel allegedly sank between Indonesia and the Australian mainland. Many spent up to twelve hours in rough seas before succumbing to drowning.

Eventually those who survived were picked up by an Indonesian fishing boat and taken to Christmas Island, less than one hundred kilometers off the Australian coast. The "incident" merited a brief television news 'bite' and a page three newspaper column at the time. The Howard government's initial and official response was typically callous and stated that "a terrible tragedy had occurred" but the point was also made that if "these people" are prepared to take the risk, then they have only themselves to blame.

Significantly, it was also stated that the boat sank outside Australian territorial waters. This has since been confirmed false. These victims not only died well within Australian territorial waters but in an area surveyed on a daily basis by the Australian Air Force in search of just such "illegal" arrivals. Survivors reported hearing boat engines close by though they soon receded into the night, without any attempt being made to make contact nor rescue them. The Australian Air force conducts daily routine surveillance flights directly over the position of this tragedy. That they were not noted and reported is almost impossible to credit. It is now considered the worst disaster involving Middle Eastern asylum seekers. The tragedy is the subject of an ongoing senate inquiry led by an opposition Labor senator and an independent journalist is working to uncover the extent to which the Australian government was involved. I can update anyone concerned with this issue if called upon to do so.

Baxter hell: the front gate - in it Australia's totalitarian and super-secure militarism towards refugees is exemplified

Those asylum seekers who do make it to Australia after risking the lives of themselves and their families, face mandatory detention in prison-like facilities. These "facilities" have been criticized from many quarters for their inhumane treatment of detainees on compassionate grounds including Amnesty International and Commissioner for Human Rights, Ireland's Mary Robinson. On word of inspection, they are reported to be "made presentable", nevertheless they were not considered to provide humane care for those having to wait indeterminate periods of time (some extending into years) for either the issuing of a temporary protection visa, or their forced deportation. The most notorious of these facilities was "Woomera" (closed down early this year) situated in one of Australia's remotest desert regions. The conditions here were so harsh, inhumane and punitive that it was recently forced to close under public pressure and protest, as well as as a result of the reports of ex-staff member "whistle-blowers", who described the inhumane conditions in which asylum seekers were detained. Woomera, within the time of its infamous history, saw rioting, hunger strikes, self mutilation, mental illness amongst children and the self stitching of lips together in protest that they were allowed no voice. Contact with the media and public was forbidden in order that no human face could be associated with these people.

Denying asylum seekers the compassion of the Australian people by way of ensuring they remain nameless, faceless and de-humanized with the status of criminals was clearly government policy. It was not difficult to perceive that policy was implemented in such a way as ensure that these people remained statistics, voiceless and shielded from a potentially compassionate response from the general public. Any unwelcome public outpouring of compassion or empathy for their plight was obviously considered highly undesirable. Many of the ex-staff members and administrators have suffered trauma and depression as a result of their time at Woomera.

This is how the Howard government treats the victims of "brutal regimes". These are the very people the Howard government joined a 'coalition of the willing' to wage a war to "liberate". These are people we are now told are so deserving of our compassion, and deserve the chance to live in free and democratic societies. Such sentiments are deserve to be considered with contempt when they come from the likes of Mr Howard and his government. They were only expressed after the "sexed up" intelligence reports proved erroneous and fabricated, and only after weapons of mass destruction were found to have neither deployed nor discovered. This is the only justification left to the 'coalition of the willing' to invade Iraq. Such sentiments can only be considered worthless and no more than cynical political opportunism. Inconceivably John Howard expects the people to believe it was his "moral duty" to liberate the people of Iraq.

The United Nations' office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs issued two donor alerts to Iraq prior to the invasion, one in early December 2002 and one in mid February 2003. These alerts are to cover the costs of deploying food, shelter, medical assistance and other emergency relief for the initial stages of the war alone. The total request for that emergency was approximately AUD$300 million. The Howard government, the third and most enthusiastic member of the coalition of the willing to commit military forces has contributed 3% of this initial fund for Iraq. Despite inquiries being made into the fabrication of evidence to justify war on Iraq in the US and U.K, in Australia there has been no similar inquiry. Not a whisper of dissent from within the Howard government. Former ONA (office of national assessment) senior analyst Andrew Wilkie, is perhaps the only Australian official to challenge the government. He quit his position in protest of the government's misuse and distortion of evidence relating to Iraqi weapons capability and terrorist affiliations. He has subsequently, and predictably, been belittled and marginalized, his professional responsibilities downplayed or ignored completely.

With the failure of the coalition to produce evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the Howard government - like that of George Bush and Tony Blair - has changed its attempted efforts to justify the war to that of their "moral duty". For Mr Howard and his government in particular, with its shameful record of human rights abuses, vilification and demonization of the very people he claims to care about, hypocrisy seems an inadequate adjective to describe such amoral behaviour, which disturbingly is becoming ever more acceptable within Western societies' apathetic, disengaged and disillusioned people.