Former prime minister John Howard has defended his actions in the Tampa and children overboard affairs 20 years ago, insisting he didn’t introduce racism into the immigration debate and nor did it win him the 2001 election.
As a new wave of refugees to Australia is expected as a result of the crisis in Afghanistan, Mr Howard reflected on the two events the defined the Coalition’s approach to asylum seekers two decades ago.
An Australian navy ship passes by the MV Tampa off Christmas Island in 2001.Credit:Craig Sillitoe
On August 26, 2001, Norwegian freighter the MV Tampa rescued more than 400 asylum seekers from a stranded boat and headed for Christmas Island, a tiny Australian territory south of Java. The Australian government refused to let them unload or claim asylum and sent special forces troops to board the ship and prevent it from approaching Australian territory.
Mr Howard said on Thursday he hadn’t expected the Tampa’s captain to take the actions he had, but “the minute he did do that, there was only one possible response”.
“I knew it was going to be a big issue once it became necessary to use the SAS to stop the Tampa coming into Australian territorial waters. That was obvious,” he told ABC radio on the anniversary of the stand-off.
Mr Howard was asked his response to those who accused him of allowing racism to enter the debate over how Australia handled refugees and migration during the crisis and the 2001 election campaign.
“I reject that. It’s not right,” Mr Howard said. “I think the great majority of the Australian public doesn’t believe that, but I had critics. I still have. That is the nature of holding the highest political office in the country.”
He also said he regretted the prominence his comments on the children overboard scandal received during the 2001 election.
On the eve of the election being called, Mr Howard and other ministers said asylum seekers on a boat known as SIEV 4 had thrown their children overboard. The claim was later found to be false.
In Mr Howard’s recollection, the event became a major issue only in the final few weeks of the election campaign, a month later.
He again rejected claims the scandal helped him win the election despite the Coalition campaigning heavily on its handling of Australia’s borders.
“What I regret is that, in retrospect, it is being given a prominence that it didn’t have,” Mr Howard said.
“I mentioned it a couple of times and then, until some stories emerged towards the end of the election campaign, I didn’t address it for something like two or three weeks. It wasn’t a big issue in the campaign.
“But once the campaign was over and once it was established that the original advice that had been given in relation to the children being allegedly thrown overboard was not accurate, people said, ‘Well, that was terrible and that’s the reason why you won the election.’
“That was nonsense.”
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