It is Australia’s duty to care for Afghan refugees

Accepting refugees demands courage from Australia’s leaders, but that is currently in very short supply.

Twenty years ago, in late August 2001, John Howard’s government was heading for electoral defeat after just 5½ years in office. All indications were that it would take a miracle to save it. Then, in Australian waters off Christmas Island, a miracle arrived.

Tampa, a Norwegian container ship, sought permission to transfer to the island 433 asylum seekers, mainly Afghan Hazaras, it had rescued from their sinking boat. The Howard government refused the request, sent in the Navy and packed the unfortunate people off to a hastily-arranged camp on Nauru – the beginning of Howard’s “Pacific solution”.

A fortnight later, on a September morning that would rival Pearl Harbour as America’s “day of infamy”, two New York skyscrapers were levelled and the Pentagon breached, killing thousands. Within days, the attacks were linked to terrorist cells in Afghanistan.

The 9/11 terrorists were Arab Sunni Moslems trained in a Sunni-governed Afghanistan, while the Afghans aboard the Tampa were Shia Moslems fleeing government victimisation. The only common thread in the two events was Afghanistan, but that didn’t stop John Howard from bringing the two stories together as one.

Within a month, another leaky boat carrying asylum seekers was stopped by the Navy. The government put out a story, discredited years later by official inquiries, that adults in the boat had thrown children overboard to force the Navy to rescue them. The next day writs were issued for an election whose dominant theme would be border protection.

The Howard government’s campaign narrative was this: Under the smokescreen of fleeing terror, some boat people were terrorists themselves, so ruthless they would put their children in harm’s way to force our country to rescue them and take them in. The story stuck, and the Coalition went on to win re-election.

The story was too valuable to give up easily. Over the years, bolstered by slick campaign slogans and paranoia in our national security apparatus, it became a mantra. A national jurisdiction which in the time of Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke took pride in its humane treatment of refugees was now an implacable fortress, suspicious of outsiders.

That attitude lingers even now, in the wake of the US military withdrawal and the collapse of anti-Taliban resistance. The only conclusion to draw from the tardy, meagre Australian response to pressure to rescue Afghans who helped our forces over the years is that the spirit of the Tampa remains alive and well.

The skills and personalities needed when things are going smoothly, when we benefit from a neat bureaucratic mindset, are very different from those needed when established paradigms do not apply. This applies across the board, for every leader in every country.

In normal times (if such a term applies any more) Scott Morrison has the skills needed to get to the top and stay there: a good talker, a deft persuader, with an eye to detail and antennae finely tuned to political trouble. But out of his element, he struggles.

Courage is an elusive quality. In some situations it can have negative connotations. Humphrey Appleby of the classic BBC comedy “Yes Minister” would alarm his political master Jim Hacker by describing a decision as “courageous”. Courage does not come easily to people used to a stage-managed life.

Going to war in a Moslem country was a dangerous assignment back in 2001; even more so in 2003 when, with John Howard as cheerleader, George W. Bush embarked on the biggest political and military bungle of modern times, the invasion of Iraq. Dealing with the fallout when things went wrong, as was inevitable, would demand courage of those in charge. 

But no-one stood up, least of all John Howard, who in jumping into line behind Bush failed to see beyond the doctrine of American supremacy that held sway at the time. Now that fatuous nonsense has been fully exposed, Australia needs Scott Morrison to find the courage to change course and break bureaucratic norms. But that would seem a bridge too far. 

Courage in a leader demands empathy for the people caught up in the mess of war – not just those who served with our troops, but the vastly bigger cohort of Afghanis who found much to like in the open society encouraged by the Western intervention.

Having ceded any authority in Afghanistan, the least we can now do is open ourselves up to Afghanis seeking to come here, stop being paranoid about terrorists breaching our borders, and reverse the idiotic rule that boat people can’t get permanent visas. And start behaving like responsible world citizens.

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