John Howard’s despicable legacy

3 January 2022
Chloe Rafferty

2001 was a watershed in Australian politics—the year that the Liberal federal government, led by John Howard, enacted the “Pacific solution” of offshore imprisonment of refugees and asylum seekers, thumbed its nose at the Aboriginal stolen generations, joined the US-led “war on terror” and participated in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which became Australia’s longest war. It was a year that was decisive in shifting Australian political culture to the right and creating a meaner, nastier society and a more violent and repressive state.

With the release of government cabinet papers twenty years later—mandated for 1 January every year—you might expect some searing indictments of the Howard government from political commentators and journalists surveying its legacy. You would be disappointed.

The Guardian pre-empted the release of the 2001 cabinet papers with an interview with Howard, in which the former prime minister claimed that his refugee policies “saved lives”. A piece in the Conversation bemoaned the end of the “far more nuanced view on climate change” that the Liberals apparently held in the halcyon Howard days, despite Howard refusing to sign on to the criminally low-ball emission targets of the Kyoto Protocol.

The ABC’s James Glenday was quick to note the cultural sensitivity Howard’s cabinet demonstrated in their eagerness to ensure no member of the community felt vulnerable after 9/11 due to their “ethnic or cultural heritage”. This is Olympic medal gaslighting from journalists keen to rehabilitate a racist, union busting war hawk. It’s all the more galling given the enduring negative influence of the Howard years on contemporary politics.

Only a few months ago, we watched the final wretched moments of the two-decade occupation of Afghanistan. None of the journalists interviewing Howard asked any tough questions about a war now accepted as an embarrassing failure by even its most sycophantic champions. Nor were there questions about the allegations, detailed in the 2020 Brereton report, of war crimes committed by Australian troops—including the murder of civilians, cover-ups of massacres and the defiling of corpses.

In the political environment after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Howard enacted some of the most draconian national security laws in the Western world. A suite of anti-terror laws, including the Anti-Terrorism Act, undermined civil liberties here more than President George W. Bush’s notorious Patriot Act did in the United States, granting greater powers for surveillance, warrantless searches and detention without charge.

“No other nation can match the volume of Australia’s counter-terrorism laws. Their sheer scope is staggering”, academics Rebecca Ananian-Welsh and Keiran Hardy wrote in a Conversation piece last year. “Many ... are unprecedented in Australian law, outstripping even our historical wartime powers.” George Williams, writing in the Melbourne University Law Review in 2011, estimated that Howard’s government passed a new anti-terrorism statute every 6.7 weeks on average.

The corporate press, in its deferential treatment of Howard “the statesman”, barely raises a squeak of criticism about this new Orwellian age that Howard ushered in.

Nor is there much commentary about the intensely Islamophobic atmosphere that his government stoked from 2001. Howard should be remembered for the racist violence of Cronulla in 2005, when thugs descended on the beaches to attack Lebanese and anyone of Arab appearance. The prime minister, confronted with a race riot, refused to acknowledge that racism played any role in people of colour being hunted down and bashed in broad daylight by mobs of white men.

Howard should be remembered for the refugee families locked up in their thousands in remote prisons such as Woomera, Baxter and Port Headland and in the offshore gulags of Nauru and Christmas and Manus islands. His government plumbed new depths when it came to the brutal treatment of asylum seekers. Two incidents mark John Howard as a man ahead of the curve for cruelty: the Tampa and “children overboard” affairs. Both of have been left out of the cabinet paper release.

In August 2001, a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, rescued more than 400 refugees from a distressed fishing boat trying to reach Christmas Island in the northern Indian Ocean. When the government’s threats to prosecute the ship’s captain failed to prevent it entering Australian waters, Howard sent the military to intercept the Tampa to prevent the refugees from exercising their right to seek safety.

Australian soldiers boarded the ship and, after a standoff, forced refugees at gunpoint onto a Navy vessel that took them to a prison camp 7,000km away on the Pacific island nation of Nauru. Howard’s government then rushed through legislation to retroactively make his actions legal. In a creative piece of legal manoeuvring and with the Labor Party’s support, Howard changed the law to remove certain parts of Australian territory from the country’s migration zone. This kind of legal magic became the norm under both Labor and Liberal governments, reaching its zenith when Labor Prime Minister Gillard excised the Australian mainland from the migration zone in 2013.

The day after Howard announced that a federal election was to be held, the Navy intercepted another fishing boat, known as the SIEV-4 (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 4), which was carrying more than 200 refugees to Christmas Island. In an act of political bastardry, government ministers falsely accused the rescued asylum seekers of blackmailing the government by threatening to drown their own children if they were not taken to Australia. Photos were released, and splashed across the media, purporting to show that children had been “thrown overboard”. The reality was that the fishing vessel was in distress and sinking fast—the refugees had needed to be rescued.

The Tampa affair and the “children overboard” lies fuelled an election campaign infused with racism. Howard infamously declared during the campaign: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

Former British Prime Minister and war criminal Tony Blair just received a knighthood, and George W. Bush—who along with Blair and Howard is responsible for the decimation of Iraq—has been rehabilitated. So I suppose no-one should be surprised that the Australian media would prefer to celebrate Howard as a great Australian statesman.

But the rest of us shouldn’t be so quick to forget Howard’s true legacy.

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