Monthly Archives: April 2017
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today.
Some time before August 23 2001, a small Indonesian fishing boat, the KM Palapa 1, left Indonesia en route to Christmas Island with 438 asylum seekers aboard.
Like many before them, the asylum seekers hoped to reach Australia and apply for permanent protection visas. The Palapa’s engines failed in international waters between Indonesia and Australia, and it lay stranded for many days.
On August 26, the MV Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship en route from Fremantle to Singapore, answered a call from the Australian Coast Guard and rescued the crew and passengers of the Palapa. Makeshift accommodation and bathrooms were organised on the open deck. Pregnant women were among the passengers.
A delegation of five asylum seekers was taken to see the Tampa’s captain, Arne Rhinnan. They pleaded to be taken to Christmas Island (four hours away) and threatened to jump ship if they were returned to Indonesia (11 hours away). Rhinnan told the coast guard he planned to take the rescuees to Christmas Island, which was duly noted.
However, some hours later, Neville Nixon of the Department of Immigration contacted Rhinnan to inform him that the Tampa was not to enter Australian waters – and if it did so, Rhinnan risked imprisonment and fines of up to A$110,000.
What was its impact?
It was the prime minister, John Howard, who decided to prevent the Tampa entering Australia. The decision heralded the beginning of a new, executive-led change in policy, which has been the underlying basis of the approach to asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat ever since.
When the 438 asylum seekers left Indonesia on the Palapa, Australia’s policy was to rescue asylum seekers at sea and detain them in Australia while their claims for protection were processed. If their claims were successful, they would be released into the community on permanent protection visas. If they weren’t, they would be returned to their country of origin.
On October 8, six weeks after the Tampa was told it could not enter Australian waters, the Palapa survivors were forcibly removed from the HMAS Manoora onto Nauru. In the intervening period, the Australian government had introduced a policy of boat turnbacks.
The ability to construct and implement this policy less than three months out from an election was an extraordinary achievement of the Howard government, particularly given it involved complex negotiations with a foreign country (Nauru).
Also in this six-week period, ten more boats (now labelled Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels, or SIEVs) attempted to reach Christmas Island. It was a period of high drama. The Australian Navy was under orders to forcibly return boats to Indonesia under Operation Relex.
Several boats sank under navy observation. Despite the best efforts of navy personnel to rescue asylum seekers flailing in the open sea, many people drowned. In the case of SIEV-4, cabinet ministers seized on a navy communication feed that children were being thrown overboard. They immediately made the allegation public; Howard and his immigration minister declared these were not the type of people Australia wanted.
The government maintained its reliance on unverified naval intelligence right up to the federal election on November 10, without providing the navy with an opportunity to correct the record. This politicisation of navy information was the subject of a Senate inquiry in the next parliament.
Boats ceased arriving altogether after SIEV-10 sank on October 19, killing more than 350 of its 400 passengers.
The exact circumstances of the sinking of SIEV-10 remain uncertain. There can be little doubt, however, that its sinking had a significant deterrent effect on asylum seekers in Indonesia considering the journey to Christmas Island by boat.
What are its contemporary implications?
At the time of the Tampa incident, the government’s new policy of boat turnbacks seemed extreme.
However, the government ran a highly successful campaign claiming that the policy was necessary to control Australia’s borders and keep the nation safe, particularly in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
The government kept strict control of information. It withheld information about navy operations involving asylum seekers at sea and restricted the access of journalists to Nauru and Christmas Island. It also downplayed the effect of offshore detention on the mental and physical health of asylum seekers, and cast rescuees as undeserving of Australia’s protection – and potentially a risk to security.
The Rudd Labor government ended the Howard government’s asylum-seeker policy in 2007. Offshore detention centres were closed; boat turnbacks ceased. But, from 2010 to 2013, boats began arriving in unprecedented numbers, and Tony Abbott and the Coalition were elected on a platform that included “stopping the boats”.
The Abbott government introduced a new policy mirroring the post-Tampa policy – which included an added sting introduced by the Rudd government prior to the 2013 election that no asylum seeker arriving by boat and processed in an offshore detention centre would ever be resettled in Australia.
This present-day asylum-seeker policy has bipartisan support. It is a direct legacy of the Howard government’s decision to refuse entry to the Tampa in August 2001.
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today.
On June 3 1992, the High Court of Australia handed down its decision in the long-running case of Eddie Koiki Mabo and his compatriots from the Torres Strait island of Mer. Together they challenged the authority of the Queensland government to claim not just sovereignty but also ownership of the land comprising their ancestral home.
Queensland annexed the Murray Islands through the Queensland Coast Islands Act of 1879. The court had to determine the effect of this annexation on the rights of the Meriam people to their land.
In its argument, the state claimed that on becoming sovereign over this territory, it derived ownership of all the land comprised in it – including the island of Mer.
This concept, known as universal and absolute beneficial crown ownership, was derived from the idea that Australia was “terra nullius”. According to international law, this implied that a territory was uninhabited. Consequently, England could lawfully claim sovereignty over that territory.
Similarly, under English law, Australia was deemed to be “settled and uninhabited”, and therefore English law was fully imported into the new territory.
A feature of this law was that the Crown was the absolute owner of all land — a relic of English feudalism. If, by law, the Crown was the absolute owner of all land, there was simply no possibility of recognising any other type of landholding, including that of Eddie Mabo.
By contrast, Mabo argued that, despite the state’s claim to sovereignty, he and his people retained ownership over the land. The basis of this argument is the well-known reality that Australia was not uninhabited at the time of colonisation. To maintain a law based on this outdated fiction would be unjust.
The court agreed. Although it could not upset sovereignty, the fact of sovereignty could no longer support the state’s claim for absolute ownership of all land. It recognised a new category of territory – one that was “settled but inhabited”.
As an inhabited territory, the original inhabitants – including Mabo and his community – retained ownership of land.
However, the state did have the power as sovereign to extinguish pre-existing ownership rights. But the Anglo-Australian legal system would continue to recognise those rights until they were extinguished. This is known as native title.
What was its impact?
Although in the early days the Mabo decision generally seemed welcome, it was not long before it became increasingly divisive.
Many celebrated a huge victory for justice for Indigenous Australians. Some of this enthusiasm foresaw a new age of reconciliation, perhaps even a new republican constitution.
But, increasingly, in the months after the decision, many opposed what they saw as the decision’s support for the “white guilt industry”. Mining companies asserted that a “flood” of land claims would inhibit mining in Australia contrary to the national interest. The Australian Mining Industry Council (now the Minerals Council of Australia) took out full-page advertisements to that effect.
Adding to the panic, Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett claimed that Australian backyards were under threat from Aboriginal land claims – he has since admitted he was wrong.
The decision has remained important to Indigenous communities throughout Australia, notably because Anglo-Australian law now officially recognises the prior existence of Indigenous peoples. No longer is Australia “terra nullius”.
However, there have also been Indigenous voices expressing criticism of the decision. Noted scholar Irene Watson observes:
Post-Mabo most people believe we have gained justice. We are still working for the same goal, land rights and self-determination, but we are also working harder than ever before, for now we are also working on unmasking the illusion; the illusion that “the blacks have got it all”.
What are its contemporary implications?
The decision had a huge impact on Australian life. However, regardless of which side of the debate you might be on, it is clear that our institutions and society can cope with such apparently enormous shifts.
Some suggest the Mabo decision did not go far enough to achieve real justice. This indicates that, despite the perhaps inevitable argument that follows profound change, we can afford to be aspirational in embarking on reform efforts.
It is also clear that divisive language, such as that of the debate that followed the Mabo decision (and since), is unnecessary. Knowing that our institutions can withstand the “shock” of change surely means we can engage in a well-modulated and respectful public discussion to achieve it.
Finally, we clearly cannot be complacent following even apparently significant advances in the law’s approach to Indigenous Australians’ claims for justice. There remains work to be done; any single advance will not be sufficient.
To fulfil the promise of Mabo, to advance justice for Indigenous Australians, we need a suite of reforms embracing law, policy and the economy.
Kate Galloway, Assistant Professor of Law
Albert Biggs, a labourer from Sydney who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force under the name Alfred Briggs, was 23 when he arrived in Gallipoli on 22 August 1915.
Biggs, as part of the second reinforcements for the 20th battalion, fought to defend the Anzac trenches on the ridge known as Russell’s Top, from where the ill-fated 3rd Light Horse Brigade had launched their attack for the Battle of the Nek. His battalion was evacuated to Egypt in December 1915 and sent to the Western Front the following April.
Biggs was awarded the Military Medal for “great initiative and bravery” at Lagnicourt on 15 April 1917, but he was severely wounded at the second battle of Bullecourt on 5 May. Shrapnel flew into his left knee, leaving it permanently fused, and his right humerus was shattered. This damaged the nerves in his arm so badly that he could scarcely use his right hand.
Biggs spent nearly 12 months in hospital in Rouen, France, before being moved to the Tooting Military Hospital in London, where he was first encouraged to take up embroidery. He returned to Sydney in September 1918 and spent almost two years at the 4th Australian General Hospital at Randwick (where the Prince of Wales Hospital stands today), and convalescent homes. He was discharged from the army in 1920.
Biggs was one of more than 156,000 Australian men who were wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner during the first world war. Like many of his comrades, however, it is also likely that he suffered from some form of shell shock.
Many of the hospitals tending the wounded during and after the War provided bright, clean, quiet environments where the men could perform meditative, transformative work that was essential to their rehabilitation from their physical and mental wounds.
One such activity was embroidery, also known as “fancy work”. Embroidery was widely used as a form of therapy for British, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers wounded in the War – challenging the gendered construct of it as “women’s work” that was ubiquitous throughout the 19th century.
Hospitals in England, France, Australia, and New Zealand all offered embroidery therapy and important examples of the soldiers’ work can be found in places such as the TePapa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, the Australian War Memorial Museum and St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where the beautiful embroidered Altar Frontal was created by wounded soldiers from the UK, Australia, Canada, and South Africa.
Themes of the soldiers’ embroidery ranged from military heraldry to scenes from the French countryside to pieces for their sweethearts.
The 4 AGH in Randwick had vast recreation facilities to help with soldiers’ rehabilitation and occupational therapy. Staff encouraged Biggs to resume embroidery to pass the time and develop the fine motor skills in his left hand.
Individual embroidery was an excellent past-time for the wounded soldiers; it is a small, flat, quiet, intimate activity that can be conducted seated, either in a group or alone. The classes at 4 AGH were taught by volunteers and, as Lieutenant Colonel CLS Mackintosh noted, helped the patients, “to forget that they have any great disability.”
The Australian War Memorial holds at least four examples of Biggs’ embroidery. One, which he completed while at the hospital in Randwick, shows a cushion with the 1912 Australian coat of arms sewn in stem, long, and satin stitch onto a black background.
From what we know about Biggs’ service, we can surmise that this choice of embroidery pattern was bound to a constancy in his identity throughout his army experiences. Once a labourer, the war had made him a soldier, a war hero, and an invalid but he remained, above all, Australian.
Biggs’s niece transformed several pieces of his embroidery into cushion covers. The back of the coat of arms cushion features six colourful, embroidered butterflies. The butterfly is a Christian symbol of hope and of the resurrection, because of its three stages of life. The butterfly is also associated with Psalm 119:50, “This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me.”
Biggs also created a piece with six gold daisies and four sprays of red berries and a piece with a King’s crown with crossed Union flag and Australian ensign, all within a laurel wreath. A scroll bearing the words, “For England home and beauty” sits above the piece; and a scroll reading “Australia will be there” below, but the rest of the pattern is unfinished.
Creating these delicate works was a great achievement for Biggs as the skill would have taken him years to master; it is not unlike a right-handed person learning to write again neatly with their left hand.
The soldiers’ work also created economic opportunities. Their embroidery and other ornaments were sold at the Red Cross Hospital Handicrafts Shop in Sydney where visitors were encouraged to “purchase the work of returned soldiers to help them help themselves”. The Red Cross also supplied printed templates for embroidery, many of which bore patriotic messages, such as the piece that Biggs left uncompleted.
One hundred years later, the story of Biggs’ bravery in Gallipoli and France has been stitched into the broader “mythscape” that surrounds Anzac Day. His embroidery, however, speaks to us of the quiet courage and dignity of Australia’s soldiers as they tried to mend their shattered lives following World War I.
And interestingly, two recent studies have helped articulate the rationale for rehabilatation embroidery. One has demonstrated that undertaking everyday craft activities is associated with emotional flourishing, revealing the importance of handcrafts to their makers. Another study has shown that embroidery and sewing can allow individuals to work through mental trauma associated with war.
Highlighting the practice of rehabilitation embroidery gives us new ways to remember Biggs and the 416,809 Australian men who served in WWI. The stories they stitched into their embroidery allow us to remember them as we grow old.
Australia is spending the extraordinary amount of A$562 million commemorating the centenary of the first world war between 2014 and 2018 — far more than any other nation, including the major combatants. This is compelling proof we are very attached to the cluster of beliefs and traditions we call the “Anzac legend”.
While we identify Anzac as one of the most prized components of the Australian identity in 2017, that has not always been the case. The values we associate with Anzac today – mateship, sacrifice, the birth of the nation – are not necessarily the qualities that would have come to mind for an Australian of the 1920s.
And if you asked a university student in the 1970s what they thought about Anzac, they might well have told you that it was an old-fashioned idea that glorified war; the sooner it was forgotten, the better.
The Anzac legend has an often-controversial history. That history began almost as soon as news of the dawn landing of the Anzac troops at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915 reached Australian shores.
Newspaper editors, politicians and leaders of the church readily proclaimed the charge up the cliffs into Turkish fire to be Australia’s “baptism of fire” and “the birth of the nation”.
The more obvious occasion for Australia’s national birth — the peaceful act of federation on January 1, 1901 – lacked the bloody appeal of Gallipoli. The Australian nation was created during the age of “New Imperialism”, when the empires of Europe were engaged in furious competition for colonial outposts and the resources and markets they would bring.
It was a contest that led in 1914 to the outbreak of the first world war. According to the chest-beating nationalism that accompanied and justified this imperial jostling, war was the truest test of the character of men and nations.
Australians felt especially keenly their lack of bloody initiation (the frontier wars with Aboriginal peoples did not count), given our penal past. A good showing in battle would expunge the convict stain and prove us worthy members of the British race.
Even the radical poet Henry Lawson favoured war as the national midwife over peaceful federation. “We boast no more of our bloodless flag, that rose from a nation’s slime,” he wrote in The Star of Australasia. Instead, Lawson forewarned:
The Star of the South shall rise, in the lurid clouds of war.
The earliest version of the Anzac legend reflected the society from which it sprung. It sought both to distinguish Australians from Britons and earn their approval. Thus, the original Anzac legend emphasised the fighting ability of the Australian soldiers, and their national distinctiveness.
Unlike the English, we were laconic and egalitarian. We didn’t stand on ceremonies like saluting and parading, but when it came to battle we were second to none. None of these comparisons with Britain indicated disloyalty to the “mother country”. One of the tenets of Anzac commemoration remained our continuing devotion to King and Empire.
The Anzac legend became an important addition to the Australian identity during the 1920s and 1930s, but it would be wrong to assume that it enjoyed the celebratory connotations it does today.
Anzac commemoration had natural constraints. Sixty thousand Australians were killed in the war, and 160,000 were recorded officially as wounded. Australians felt immense pride in the achievements of their soldiers, but that pride was tethered to the grief of those who had witnessed first-hand the devastating effect of war.
Along with the deep attachment to our British heritage, female subservience and sexual abstinence, the Anzac legend was one of the foundation stones of Australian society that was upturned by the generation that grew to maturity in the 1960s.
Alan Seymour’s 1958 play, The One Day of the Year, notoriously condemned Anzac Day as a day of “bloody wastefulness” perpetuated year after year by a “screaming tribe of great, stupid, drunken, vicious, bigoted no-hopers”.
The unpopularity of the Vietnam War from the mid-1960s greatly exacerbated anti-Anzac feeling. Later, in the 1970s and early 1980s, feminist protesters targeted Anzac Day, condemning the rape of women in war. For many among the baby-boomer generation, war commemoration had become indistinguishable from the glorification of war.
Myths and legends always reflect the societies in which they exist. So, we have seen the Anzac legend bend and sway to accommodate our contemporary concerns with diversity and inclusiveness. Women and non-Anglo Australians have been increasingly drawn into the Anzac tent.
The extent to which Aboriginal Australians have both sought and been invited to participate has been one of the noticeable trends of the Anzac centenary commemorations. Tom Wright’s play Black Diggers has toured the country, telling the story of a group of Aboriginal soldiers who fought loyally for Australia, only to be relegated to their lowly status after they returned.
As the centenary of the Gallipoli landing loomed in 2015, it looked as if Anzac was becoming the kind of commercially driven carnival that Easter and Christmas have morphed into.
Canny business people knew a cash cow when they saw one. There were Gallipoli cruises, camps and concerts. Men’s magazines and merchandisers peddled Anzac porn (before the Department of Veterans’ Affairs shut them down). We even had Gallipoli the Musical.
The most notorious of the “Brandzac” ventures was Woolworths’ “Fresh in our Memories” campaign — a public relations disaster for the ages. Leading up to Anzac Day in 2015, Woolworths encouraged people to post images of those who had been affected by war. At the bottom of the images, Woolworths’ picture generator inserted the slogan “Fresh in Our Memories” and the company’s logo.
The blatant commercial motive drew an immediate social media backlash, including a rash of satirical memes.
Woolworths’ blunder was a symptom of a bigger problem. Perhaps the public appetite for Anzac had been overestimated. Amid rumblings about Gallipoli fatigue, Channels Seven and Nine scaled back their plans for coverage of the dawn service in Gallipoli. Lee Kernaghan’s “Spirit of the Anzacs” arena spectacular was cancelled due to poor ticket sales.
Channel Nine’s seven-part TV series, Gallipoli — predicted to be the “biggest show on television” in 2015 by network head David Gyngell — was a spectacular ratings flop, despite critical acclaim. Foxtel’s excellent Deadline Gallipoli, starring Sam Worthington, also failed to fire.
Anzac commemoration has been noticeably more muted since 2015. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is less ready than his predecessor Tony Abbott to exalt the Anzacs and prime the nationalist pump. Like his son-in-law and former army captain, James Brown, who criticised our “Anzac obsession” in his book Anzac’s Long Shadow, Turnbull prefers to emphasise the service and well-being of contemporary military personnel and veterans.
Criticisms of the Anzac excess from commentators including historian Marilyn Lake, co-author of What’s Wrong with Anzac?, and David Stephens at the Honest History group have arguably helped to temper the more exuberant rhetoric of politicians and ambitions of cynical commercial interests. Stephens has recently co-edited The Honest History Book, which argues that:
Australia is more than Anzac – and always has been.
While Australians no longer blink an eye at the rampant commercialisation of Easter and Christmas, we have drawn the line at allowing Anzac to be surrendered to the profit gods. Does this mean that Anzac is more sacred to Australians than the Christian traditions of Easter and Christmas?
With its invocations to suffering and sacrifice, its quasi-worship of long-deceased young men and its solemn dawn service rites, Anzac commemoration shares many of the elements of conventional religion.
The historian Ken Inglis wondered as long ago as 1960 whether Anzac functioned as a secular religion in Australian society. In 2017, I think we can confidently answer: yes, it does.