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14 Kurdish Asylum seekers approach Melville Island in search of refuge, only to be towed all the way to Indonesia
Fourteen asylum seekers, Kurds fleeing from Turkey, sought refuge in Australia in November 2003. This is their boat, the Minasa Bone, before it made landfall at Melville Island north of Darwin. The Howard government towed them all the way back to Indonesia.

Melville Island Kurds: Another 'truth overboard'?

John Howard's craven brutality makes him a human rights criminal

"I begged them, I pleaded down on my knees. They sent a Turkish interpreter and I pleaded with him saying, I'll do anything not to be sent back."

"We spent four days on the water, 10 days without sleep, it nearly killed us. I'm human, I'm a human being. I'm a refugee."

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"The Howard Government's handling of the boatload of Kurdish asylum seekers who landed on Melville Island 11 days ago has all the elements of the "children overboard" affair of the 2001 election campaign," writes Michael Gordon in The Age, while Tony Abbott tries to justify John Howard's asylum strategies and gets a serve for it by Julian Burnside QC.


24 November 2003: The Melville Island incident: Australia's New Low - UNHCR regional representative Michel Gaubadan called it "a new low" for Australian refugee treatment. Fourteen Kurdish asylum seekers sought refuge in Australia. In an extraordinary move the Howard government retrospectively excised thousands of islands, including Melville Island - but Senator Andrew Bartlett intervenes.

A lying politician

Interviewed on the Nine Network's Today show 48 hours later, Downer said: "Now, we don't know a great deal about these people; they didn't claim asylum in Australia while they were in Australian waters," he said.

The next day, sitting in the Kalideres detention centre in Jakarta, one of the Turkish Kurds was asked whether they had expressed a desire for asylum to Australian officials.

"Thousands of times, thousands," said Abuzer Goles. "I begged them, I pleaded down on my knees. They sent a Turkish interpreter and I pleaded with him saying, I'll do anything not to be sent back. We spent four days on the water, 10 days without sleep, it nearly killed us. I'm human, I'm a human being. I'm a refugee." He then broke down, crying.

Another case of truth overboard?

Michael Gordon
From The Age
November 15, 2003

The Howard Government's handling of the boatload of Kurdish asylum seekers who landed on Melville Island 11 days ago has all the elements of the "children overboard" affair of the 2001 election campaign. Only the context and consequences are different.

Consider the similarities. Both began with confused accounts by the authorities who first made contact with a boat of asylum seekers.

In both cases, "talking points" - media briefing notes - were relayed to ministers by public servants keen to please their political masters. In both cases, ministers seized on the one "fact" in the talking points that put the Government's actions in the best possible light. In both cases, those in a position to know the truth - naval personnel, for example - were gagged from speaking to the media.

Back in 2001, the "fact" was that the asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard, prompting an indignant John Howard to declare: "I don't want people like that in Australia." It provided the edge to his election slogan: "We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come." It helped win him the election.

This time, the "fact"' was that, having managed to slip through the net of Australia's comprehensive border protection regime and land on an island within sight of Darwin, the 14 Kurds made no claimto be refugees and no request for asylum.

It always beggared belief.

The day the boat arrived, the Government moved quickly to retrospectively remove Melville and more than 3000 other islands from Australia's migration zone. Despite this, if those on the boat had made such a claim, Australia would have been under a strong obligation to process their applications for refugee status.

In both cases, the fact turned out to be fiction. In both cases, the Government response to the public revelation of this was the same: it doesn't matter one jot. As Howard said yesterday: "It's quite irrelevant. I mean, it doesn't really matter."

While both cases involved bureaucratic sloppiness and ministerial ineptitude, both gave the Government the opportunity to again present itself as uncompromising and resolute on border protection - and to cast those who disagreed as wanting to "open the floodgates".

What is beyond question is that, after a respite of more than two years from regular boat arrivals, the Howard Government has ramped up its border protection policy to a new level (or a new low, as the regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees, Michel Gabaudan, described it this week).

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone insists there is no change in the policy, but the evidence is clear. While boats have been returned to Indonesia after being intercepted well away from Australia in open water, this is the first time a boat has been returned after asylum seekers set foot on an Australian territory - just 80 kilometres from the mainland.

Australia's policy was already far more punitive to those who attempt to arrive by boat than those who come by other means, denying them access to the Australian courts and consigning hundreds to years of family separation and offshore detention. Now it is suddenly, unapologetically, even tougher.

There is a second string to the new approach. While the regulations excising the islands from Australia's migration zone will eventually be disallowed in the Senate, the Government will use the tactic in future to ensure that if a boat does again make it to an island, it is not part of Australia's migration zone.

And the purpose? As always, to send a message to the people smugglers and those desperate or foolhardy enough to use them. As the Prime Minister told the ABC yesterday: "The point of our policy is to deter people from arriving here illegally. That's the starting point. That's what people have got to understand."

What is not clear is whether the issue will have the same potency with voters as in 2001.

So how did the truth go overboard? Robert Cook, a Tiwi islander, was on his morning walk when he saw the boat, Minasa Bone, "parked on the beach'' on Tuesday, November 4. When a group of islanders approached, the asylum seekers greeted them with three words: "Is this Australia?"

"Yeah, this is the Tiwi Islands," replied Gibson Farmer, chairman of the Milikapiti community management council.

The next morning, Vanstone was asked on ABC radio if the group had asked for asylum. "I don't have any advice on that," she replied.

Labor leader Simon Crean insists he asked the same question later that day during a briefing from Vanstone. Once again, she could not give an answer.

Crean complained that the briefing was "almost totally uninformative" and factually wrong when he asked Howard in Parliament about the condition of those on board.

The Prime Minister took the opportunity to attack Labor, which had, with the minor parties in the Senate, repeatedly disallowed regulations removing offshore islands from Australia's migration zone. The action, he said, made it "more difficult to protect Australia's borders from illegal immigration arrivals".

Four days later, Vanstone and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced that the boat had returned to Indonesia after being escorted back to international waters near that country. "The passengers of the Minasa Bone did not claim asylum in Australia," their statement said.

Both ministers repeated this claim in media interviews, with Downer later revealing that it had been included in the "talking points" sent to him by his department on Sunday, November 9, five days after the boat landed at Melville Island.

Interviewed on the Nine Network's Today show 48 hours later, Downer said: "Now, we don't know a great deal about these people; they didn't claim asylum in Australia while they were in Australian waters," he said. The next day, sitting in the Kalideres detention centre in Jakarta, one of the Turkish Kurds was asked whether they had expressed a desire for asylum to Australian officials.

"Thousands of times, thousands," said Abuzer Goles. "I begged them, I pleaded down on my knees. They sent a Turkish interpreter and I pleaded with him saying, I'll do anything not to be sent back. We spent four days on the water, 10 days without sleep, it nearly killed us. I'm human, I'm a human being. I'm a refugee." He then broke down, crying.

Late on Thursday, the Government released a letter from Ed Killesteyn, the chairman of its People Smuggling Task Force, admitting the factual mistake, but insisting "it had no bearing on the way in which the vessel was handled".

That afternoon, Vanstone called a press conference - not to correct the record, but to attack Crean. He had argued the claims of the 14 should have been speedily assessed, with any "who are not refugees returned to where they came from". She accused him of wanting to tear up the Pacific Solution and "open the floodgates".

Killesteyn's letter revealed that, during interviews on November 6, three days before Vanstone and Downer released their statement, some of those on the boat expressed the wish to become Australian citizens and spoke of the difficulties facing them as Kurds in Turkey.

The letter gives a telling insight into how the Government gives higher priority to "sending a message" of determent than considering its obligations as a signatory to the UN's refugee convention.

It makes plain that the initial comments made by the asylum seekers "usually lead to a more in-depth interview with each individual to determine the substance behind the words each has used".

But it added: "Such a process was not pursued in these circumstances because arrangements were being made by the People Smuggling Task Force to provide that opportunity through either the regional co-operation arrangements or offshore processing. That action started from the time Melville Island was effectively excised."

As the UNHCR's Gabaudan saw it, the asylum seekers were denied this basic right of follow-up questioning without any consultation with the UNHCR or any guarantee that their claims would be properly assessed. That is why he went public.

Government officials say his concern is misplaced. They say there is an agreement with Indonesia for returns that provide for the UNHCR to process claims and for asylum seekers to be under the care of the International Organisation for Migration.

But there is no written or formal memorandum of understanding between Australia and Indonesia on boat returns, raising the question of whether Indonesia is happy for boats to be returned from places such as Melville Island, 80 kilometres from Darwin.

Vanstone and Downer portrayed the boat's return as evidence of the success of the Government's "regional co-operation model" with Indonesia. Howard insists Indonesia "knew in advance of what we were going to do and did not express any formal objection".

But some Indonesian ministers and officials have expressed resentment and one official, Ade Dahlan, asserted Indonesia should not be used as a "dumping ground" by Australia.

Indonesia expert Greg Fealy, of the Australian National University, says the episode will add to the sentiment that "Australia is not behaving in a good neighbourly way" but is unlikely to damage bilateral relations.

The domestic significance of the episode is threefold. First, it is a reminder of how hard the Coalition will run on border protection. Second, it revives the issue of honesty in dealing with the public. Vanstone said yesterday: "A lie, of course, is something where someone tells you a mistruth and they know it to be a mistruth. Now. that clearly hasn't happened." Finally, it is a sign that the Government is unlikely to yield on other asylum seeker questions.

The most pressing of these is whether those who have temporary protection visas, most of them Afghans and Iraqis, will be given permanent residency and allowed to reunite with family members, including those in detention on Nauru.

This issue will be highlighted in Canberra on November 23-24 when voluntary organisations across the nation assemble with TPV holders and some of their employers to thank those who have supported them and present their case for permanent status.

National Party whip John Forrest recently put the case for a more compassionate approach to TPV-holders in the Coalition party room. Other government MPs are sympathetic, but reluctant to speak out.

One Liberal who declined to be named said it was clear Australia had failed to meet its obligations in the case of those who landed on Melville Island. "If we assessed those 14 and listened to their stories, how is that going to change the situation?" he asked. "Are we going to see a flood of people coming down? I don't think so."

Tony Abbott: Master of the hard choice

From The Australian
by Tony Abbott
January 23, 2004

NOTE: Following this article, Melbourne barrister Julian Burnside responds to Tony Abbott's claim that the federal Government is morally courageous in the response titled "Commander Howard runs aground".

ONE of the most dramatic incidents in Peter Weir's recent film, Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, involves a choice between saving a life and saving the ship. Russell Crowe hacks away the wreckage of a fallen mast to which one of his sailors is clinging because the alternative to losing a man overboard is losing the entire ship. There's no sense in the film that Crowe was choosing his life over the sailor's. Rather, he was making the bitter but necessary decision to put the lives of the ship's company ahead of the life of any of its crew.

The film is a fine exploration of the complexities of command. It illustrates how traits that might be heroic virtue in an individual can be self-indulgent moral posturing in a leader. The commander is not just an effective and successful leader but a good and honourable one too. No doubt journalists, academics and activists attended the film and barracked for Crowe in similar proportion to the rest of the population.

But if Crowe had played an Australian prime minister handling contemporary challenges in much the same way, it's certain the moral guardians would have damned him for having blood on his hands, sacrificing another to save himself and looking after his influential mate rather than everyone else.

If it's possible to appreciate the strong moral case for Crowe's Captain Jack Aubrey, why not the moral case for the Howard Government? Why not accept that, in dealing with rogue states, terrorism and challenges to the long-term survival of the nation, compassion is a fine thing for individuals, but a most uncertain guide for governments?

There is a moral case to be made for the policies of the Howard Government such as Work for the Dole, the war in Iraq, the mandatory detention of illegal boatpeople along with much else which is supposed to indicate its heartlessness. But it's a much harder and more complex argument than that which holds that the proper role of government is to play the Good Samaritan on an epic scale.

To some, the moral quality of a government which has stood up for Australian values, stood by Australia's friends and delivered more jobs, higher pay and lower taxes to the Australian people is self-evident. On the other hand, in the absence of argument and reassurance, a sceptical public could conclude that the good the Government has done happened by accident or conspiracy - especially given the ferocious public muggings which seem to be the inescapable fate of all conservative leaders.

The Sydney Morning Herald's former chief political correspondent Geoff Kitney has argued that the Howard Government has "legitimised" attacks on multiculturalism, black welfare and dole bludgers, "sidelined" the community interest, equity and minority rights and made Australia "more selfish and less tolerant". He obviously thinks this view is self-evident because counter arguments about national unity, the side-effects of the welfare system and the importance of a strong civic culture are simply ignored.

Kitney's conclusion that the thrice-elected Australian Prime Minister is a mean man leading a mean people is actually quite mild by commentariat standards. The former Lord Mayor of Brisbane described the Prime Minister as the "Goebbels of Australia". Writer Craig McGregor ranked Howard as one of our 10 most important people, but only because "whatever you think of him he brings out the worst in Australians".

To those who hate (Howard), Kitney says, "it's the dishonest way they believe he has achieved (his success), more than anything else, that incites their fury ... It's demonstrably true that Howard and his Government have, on a number of documented occasions, parted company with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Even viewed generously, there is clear evidence of an elasticity with the truth. Viewed from the moral high ground it's blatant, systematic dishonesty without apology". Interestingly, politicians' ethics and honesty rating has improved since the time of the Keating government (which attracted nothing like the journalistic bile) from 9 per cent to 17 per cent. As newspaper journalists' ethics and honesty rating has increased from 8 per cent to just 12 per cent over the same period, it's tempting to dismiss Kitney's indignation as a bad case of the pot calling the kettle black -- tempting but mistaken because there's a pathological side to much of the anti-Howard rage.

To Kitney's ilk, if any proof of the Government's dishonesty is needed, there's always "children overboard". But government ministers didn't make up the claim that boatpeople had thrown their children into the water. It was based on official advice at the time. When doubts emerged about that advice, it was not unreasonable to seek official clarification and, in the meantime, to maintain the status quo. To many people, the distinction between throwing children into the sea and scuttling the ship on which the children were travelling seemed trivial, revealing more about the moralising of the media than the integrity of the Government.

Moral courage is not doing what's right when everyone else agrees. Moral courage is doing what's right when people who should know better declare you're wrong. By this test, the Howard Government has repeatedly demonstrated that it's worthy of the Australian people's trust. To those accustomed to pass political judgment, tax reform was impossible, the incorporation of East Timor in Indonesia irreversible, Work for the Dole immoral and the flow of refugee boats unstoppable - and many haven't forgiven the Government for showing them up. It's hard for any eight-year-old government to seem original but, in this Government's case, the resentment of the moral guardians whose orthodoxies have been debunked and whose values have been usurped poses as big a threat to its re-election as the "it's Time" factor.

Everything that the politically correct establishment most dislikes about the Howard Government -- its reluctance to see equivalent right and wrong on all sides, its preference for action over dialogue alone, and its readiness to support traditional allies -- was present in the decision to wage war against Saddam Hussein.

Sending troops into battle is by far the weightiest decision that a government can make. As the critics constantly point out, war means that innocent people die. Unfortunately, any peace that leaves tyrants in charge also means that innocent people die. It's an odd moral universe where the accidental killing of Iraqis by soldiers of the Western alliance is worse than the deliberate killing of Iraqis by Hussein or where it's immoral to risk hundreds of Western lives to save hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives -- unless, of course, it's only the West's actions that matter and only Western lives that count.

As one of the few countries in the world with a formal refugee resettlement program, Australia is entitled to pose the question: why should those illegally trying the back door take the places of those who apply to come in the correct way? The Government's policies are not about stopping refugees entering Australia but stopping people-smugglers putting lives at risk in unseaworthy boats. Indeed, the surest way to prevent dreadful tragedies at sea (such as that which befell the occupants of SIEV X) is to remove the incentive for people-smuggling. Invariably, boat people have moving stories -- but so do nearly all the world's "poor, huddled masses, yearning to be free" and how many of them can Australia realistically take?

It's not really surprising that, in rich and comfortable societies, moral vanity should be more common than moral commitment but the "not in my name" brigade don't understand that avoiding hard choices is a luxury governments don't have. Success is not its own justification but does weigh in the balance of moral judgment. The end does not justify the means but there is a moral quality to success in a good cause.

Moralists will continue to question how the fall of Hussein, the liberation of East Timor, effective border protection and the sustained reduction in unemployment have been brought about - but they can't deny the moral seriousness of the government that helped to make them happen.

Tony Abbott is Leader of the House and federal Health Minister. This is an extract from his address to the Young Liberals annual conference tonight.

Reply to Abbott: Commander Howard runs aground

The Australian
Letters to the Editor
24 January 2004

Melbourne barrister Julian Burnside responds to Tony Abbott's claim that the federal Government is morally courageous.

TONY Abbott has contributed a skilful piece of reasoning to rehabilitate the moral virtues of his Government (Opinion, 23/1).

He drew a comparison between the dilemma faced by Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World and the moral dilemmas faced by governments. In the film, Crowe cuts away a fallen mast on which a crew-member struggles, thus condemning the man to die: but this saves the ship and all on board. One drowns to save the many. Packaged that way, a moral argument can be mounted to support what otherwise looks like heartless cruelty or criminality.

Utilitarianism, pioneered by Jeremy Bentham, propounds a test for the morality of conduct: what will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Utilitarianism appeals because it avoids the awkwardness of moral absolutes. The Crowe example is a good one: utilitarianism justifies killing an innocent human being. And faced with the stark contest between one death and many, it is easy to see the force of a utilitarian solution.

But there are difficulties with Abbott's argument as it develops. First, utilitarianism is not such an effective guide when the choices are less stark. When the consequences of competing courses of action are less easy to predict, the result of utilitarian thinking depends uncomfortably on the disposition of the person doing the arithmetic.

Abbott's argument shifts from Russell Crowe to war in Iraq and our treatment of asylum-seekers, as if each of these problems yielded to a utilitarian solution with equal ease. But let us test that. It's easy to accept the argument that the death of a few thousand Iraqis in war was a fair price to pay to avoid the deaths of hundreds of thousands at Saddam's hands. The equation might need to take account of other aspects of war in Iraq: the loss of Iraq's sovereignty; the effect of a precedent which sees the world's only superpower invade another country on a false or debatable pretext (weapons of mass destruction) and so on. These are hard to quantify, so a utilitarian solution is much less reliable, and much more subjective, than the Crowe example. Abbott justifies mandatory detention of asylum-seekers by the same argument. He overlooks the irony that his Government locks up Iraqis seeking to escape death at Saddam's hands.

He says that this is necessary in order to put people smugglers out of business. This use of utilitarian thinking means that we bomb Iraqis to save them, but imprison them if they save themselves. Punishing the victim is an uncomfortable idea.

As Abbott says, a moral argument can be made to justify these things, but it looks less compelling when stripped of the comforting certainties of a film script.

The second difficulty with Abbott's argument is this: if the Government has a good moral argument for the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers, why does it lie to us about the issue? The most probable explanation for a lie is that the truth will not achieve your purpose. Let us look at two lies. One: Asylum-seekers are illegal. Asylum-seekers do not break any law by arriving without papers and seeking protection. Calling them illegals is simply a dishonest way of justifying the fact that we put them in prisons and leave them there indefinitely. Many people believe, wrongly, that mandatory detention is punishment for a crime. It is not: it is punishment of innocent people.

Utilitarianism might be able to justify imprisoning the inno cent, since it can justify killing the innocent. But if it can, why lie about asylum-seekers so as to suggest that they are not innocent?

Lie Number Two: Mandatory detention is a matter of border protection. Protection implies a threat. It is ridiculous to suggest that we are threatened by a handful of women and children fleeing the Taliban or Saddam Hussein. Our capacity for compassion might be challenged, as our response to Tampa showed; but our borders were not threatened. Each year there are about 3 million visitors to Australia. Each year about 110,000 people migrate here permanently. At any one time, there are about 60,000 who have overstayed their visa and stay here in breach of the law. By contrast, over the past 20 years, the number of asylum-seekers arriving averaged about 1000 per year. The biggest number in one year was just over 4000 and that was at a time when mandatory detention had operated for nearly a decade (so much for its deterrent value).

When a small number of terrified people seek our help, we are told it is a threat to our borders; when 60,000 backpackers from Europe stay on for years, there is no mention of border protection. Australia's human rights record has been damaged by our treatment of refugees. It will not be repaired by the cinematic simplicities of Russell Crowe.

Utilitarianism was used in the 18th century to justify slavery, in the 19th century to justify child labour and in the 20th century to justify the Nazi's treatment of the Jews. Abbott shows that it can be used in the 21st century to justify the Howard Government's record.

Julian Burnside