The Australian PM just played the asylum-seeker card – again

by Bernard Lagan / 06 March, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Australian PM Scott Morrison

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo/Getty Images

As Scott Morrison faces defeat at the polls, he plays the boat people card to predictable effect.

It’s more than 40 years since a leaky boat carrying 28-year-old Vietnamese ice seller Lam Binh limped into Darwin Harbour, where he greeted an incredulous Australian customs officer with the words “Welcome to be my boat … we would like permission to stay in Australia.”

Binh, his brother and three friends coaxed clapped-out fishing vessel Kien Giang on a two-month voyage from Vietnam to Australia, relying on pages ripped from a school atlas to navigate. Their arrival in April 1976 marked the first of the waves of boat people.

They were welcomed initially. Binh set up house in Brisbane and flourished, only to die in a 1980 car crash. Fortuitously, patrician Liberal Malcolm Fraser was Australia’s new prime minister when Binh arrived. Fraser set up a generous programme that saw Australia accept 15,000 Southeast Asians each year until 1983, when Bob Hawke led the Labor Party back into office.

Although Labor doesn’t like to be reminded, it was the Hawke Labor government that began the clampdown on the boat people; Australia became only the fourth country in the world to force asylum seekers into mandatory detention, herding them into gulags that came to resemble prisons.

Ever harsher policies have since riven Australia, especially since August 2001, when a compassionate Norwegian sea captain, Arne Rinnan, steered his container ship, MV Tampa, to a stricken fishing vessel carrying 438 asylum seekers. Rinnan’s ship was then stormed by special forces troops when the Norwegian took the asylum seekers on board and into Australian waters.

The military intervention was at the behest of Australia’s then conservative prime minister, John Howard, who was on the back foot with voters and facing a general election.

Two months later – just before election day – Howard uttered one of the most enduring quotes of his 33 years in politics when he said at his Liberal Party campaign launch to cheering supporters: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Howard sailed home at the polls. Ever since, the electoral potency of the boat people has been revered by Australia’s conservatives and rued by the Labor Party, which has, under leader Bill Shorten, contorted itself to match the Government’s policy on boat people; that none who arrive in Australian waters will ever be admitted.

Just as in 2001, another conservative prime minister – Scott Morrison – is staring at defeat in the coming general election, expected in May. And, on cue, the boat people have sailed back over the horizon. Not in a boat – the Australian navy now blockades them – but as a menacing apparition drawn by Morrison and his arch-conservative Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, of what’s in store should a Labor government be elected.

The people smugglers, Morrison and Dutton claim, are poised to restart their treacherous voyages to Australia, anticipating that a Shorten Labor government will go soft on border protection.

The Government made the claims after Labor and independent MPs in February forced a law change to allow the sickest among the 1000 asylum seekers still confined by Australia on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island to be temporarily evacuated to Australia for treatment.

“You will get children and women and men, of course, back on boats; you will end up with people drowning at sea; you will end up with kids back in detention; you will end up with a multibillion-dollar bill,” Dutton huffed.

So far there’s no sign of another load of boat people. But there was an immediate lift in the polls for the embattled Morrison. And that was always the aim.

This article was first published in the March 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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