2001 cabinet papers show Tampa affair and September 11 change Australia

Former prime minister John Howard reflecting on 2001, a year of huge events in Australia and the world. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Former prime minister John Howard reflecting on 2001, a year of huge events in Australia and the world. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

2001 was the year that shook the world. Twenty years later it is still shaking. Airline travel changed forever, boat tow-backs, detention centre riots, fences over Parliament House, 20 years of war in Afghanistan.

John Howard was at the helm, staring at likely electoral defeat to Labor's Kim Beazley after two terms in office, when everything changed.

Two tremendous events took place in what was to Mr Howard, the "most momentous" of years; Australian troops boarded the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa in a dramatic drawn out asylum seeker stand off and Islamists Al Qaeda struck the United States with passenger jets on September 11.

What's more, as more than 200 cabinet papers released on Saturday by the National Archives of Australia show, there are the seeds of the climate wars, a federal budget weighted by an ageing population, clear opposition to First Nations reparations and keenness to dip into moral panic with visa controversies over Eminem and Mike Tyson.

It started, as Mr Howard recollects 20 years later, "politically, very poorly for the government". "And it was a year that ended with slightly consolidating our political position. It was a reminder of just how much the world changes."

And so much is still the same. This was famously, and enduringly, in his 2001 election pitch. "My friends, we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come," the then-prime minister famously declared.

The Tampa affair and 9/11, indeed, were watershed events. There was a clean political pivot in the 2001 cabinet deliberations away from sticking to international agreements and from assisting refugees to focusing on domestic laws and switching to a security mindset. The newly released cabinet papers show the nation thrust into a dark and challenging 21st century.

The ANZUS Treaty was invoked on September 14, cabinet discussed "options for defence enhancement for domestic security" on October 2, and two days later Australia committed military support to the United States in its planned operations in Afghanistan.

"I certainly don't think there was any overreach," Mr Howard told The Canberra Times. "We sent forces to Afghanistan commensurate with our capacity and the size of our military.

The Australian military is very highly regarded by the United States military and there was overwhelming support within the Australian community for them going there. Overwhelming."

The largest anti-war protests were to come two years later, when hundreds of thousands marched across Australia against the war on terror.

Greater powers were given to security agencies such as ASIO. Still "perfectly" justified for Mr Howard and still used.

"All of those things were proportionate responses," Mr Howard said. "There was a new challenge. There were potential vulnerabilities that had never previously been contemplated. And we had to act. I thought they were all perfectly justified."

A jet airliner about to crash into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

A jet airliner about to crash into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

2001 was the year Australian immigration went hard-line and processing went offshore, the Howard government created with Labor opposition support, its "Pacific Solution" asylum-seeker deterrent where asylum seekers were detained at length in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Surprisingly, there are no released cabinet documents relating to the Tampa affair, nor the later "children overboard" affair. They were sought for release.

Mr Howard recollects there was no "significant disagreement" or dissent within cabinet over what transpired, despite reports of some disagreement with the Attorney-General's Department over legal interpretations.

"The naval work required was very unpleasant. It involved young servicemen and women coming face to face with people in a very fraught emotional situation," he recalled. "I think across the government, there was a collective holding your breath to see how it worked out, but there was never any real doubt. It was the right thing to do."

Mr Howard has no regrets or guilt over the Tampa crisis and what followed.

"No, I don't. I thought was a very tough policy, but I thought it was the right policy," he said.


The cabinet submissions revealed predictions that up to 3000 people could arrive on a single vessel and that numbers could "completely exhaust" Australia's immigration detention capacity. Boat arrivals were thought to be slowing in February that year.

Asylum seekers were seen in the documents to increasingly "take advantage" of international refugee conventions. Years ahead of its opening as a detention centre, Christmas Island was noted for its "strategic appeal".

And the government was testing the waters with Operation Sovereign Borders style deterrence well ahead of the later Abbott government. To departmental opposition, potential boat turn-backs were proposed to countries of origin.

"We were just trying to stop boats coming," he said. "And part of stopping boats coming was to say that people would end up being processed offshore. That was a powerful disincentive for people coming."

"We ended up sending people to Nauru, we wanted offshore processing. And there was a good reason for that because once people physically arrived in Australia, there were certain legal claims that could be mounted that couldn't be mounted if they weren't on Australian soil."

View of the stricken refugees from the wooden boat which was rescued by MS TAMPA. Pictures: Wallenius Wilhelmsen

View of the stricken refugees from the wooden boat which was rescued by MS TAMPA. Pictures: Wallenius Wilhelmsen

The cabinet documents show climate policy in 2001 was more pragmatic than it is now. It is noted that Mr Howard was a "climate agnostic" at the time and still describes himself as such.

No denialism is evident in the papers. There were serious concerns and active ministerial work on climate change inside the government.

One thing that remained off the Howard government's radar was an apology to the Stolen Generations. In a response to the 1997 Bringing them Home report, cabinet judged that an apology was "not appropriate given that the practices at the time were deemed to be in the best interests of the children concerned". Financial compensation was also knocked back as "not appropriate or practical".

2001 was a remarkable year because we are still feeling the effects. Politically, it set the tone for the next two decades and got the nation wondering about personal freedoms.


This story Recalling a year the world shook first appeared on The Canberra Times.