Dark Victory

by

Dark Victory, by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2003

Jenny Haines

This book has to be read in small doses. I had to read it that way as I kept having to pause to consider the profound shock and horror I felt at what Australia has become under the leadership of John Howard and his government. It is a torrid read of the “secret history of John Howard’s campaign against boat people that began with the Tampa and ended 10 extraordinary weeks later — after deaths and disappearances, violent confrontation in the Indian Ocean and international uproar — with the Australian people giving the Prime Minister his third, most daring election victory”, (cover notes, Dark Victory).

David Marr and Marian Wilkinson have done a masterful job. They have put into a compelling readable form, facts and details that must only have come out much later than when the events were happening, mostly at the Senate inquiry after the election. The public at the time of this election campaign were fed a limited diet based on what the Federal Government wanted them to hear. Much of what the Federal Government told the public was lies. There were no children thrown overboard. Most of the military leadership knew that, and tried to tell Defence Minister Peter Reith repeatedly throughout the election campaign. Peter Reith got very aggressive with Admiral Barrie when told news he did not want to hear. There is a charming description of a confrontation on the telephone between Air Marshal Angus Houston, who bravely told Reith there was no evidence children were thrown overboard.

“When Houston finished there was silence at the other end of the line for some time. Houston thought Reith was stunned. Finally the minister said, ‘Well I think we’ll have to look at releasing the video.’ But what the video showed was sailors rescuing asylum seekers from the sea after their boat went down, not children being thrown in the water.”

This book tells it all — the ruthless intentions of Howard and his cohorts, the compliant and very ambitious public servants who did more than their masters asked, day, night and weekend, with no apparent concern for the morality of what they were doing. The book is indeed a moral tale for anyone who wants to be a senior public servant or a senior member of government. Anyone who thinks Howard was not reading his electorate closely should note his comments to Phil Clarke on Sydney radio station 2GB 10 days out from the election:

    “But if we throw up our hands and say we are going to stop doing this we’ll be saying to the world anyone can come and I promise you that would be a recipe for the shores of this country to be … thick with asylum seekers, thick with asylum seekers.”

Howard’s strategy worked, he destroyed One Nation’s vote by stealing their policies. Howard supported Ruddock and Reith all the way. Ruddock received a tumult of “whistling, stamping and clapping” at the City Recital Hall launch of the Liberal Campaign. Ruddock “kept modestly in his seat, inclined his head and mouthed ‘thank you very much’ to a beaming John Howard, who had just congratulated Ruddock on the fantastic job he had done for Australia”.

When Howard was challenged over Reith’s handling of the children overboard affair, Howard said: “I think Mr Reith has been an extremely good member of the Government and I have a very warm regard for what Mr Reith has done.”

The book tells the tale, warts and all, of the Parliamentary Labor Party leadership’s complicity, for which Howard gave them no rewards. Howard just used Labor’s complicity as a stick to beat them with. Labor knew that what they were faced with was a “shit sandwich”. After the troops boarded the Tampa, Beazley said in Parliament:

    “In these circumstances, this country and this parliament do not need a carping Opposition. What they actually need is an Opposition that understands the difficult circumstances in which the Government finds itself, and to the very best of my ability, I will ensure that that situation prevails.”

Four hours later Beazley was in Howard’s office reading the grim clauses of the Border Protection Bill.

Beazley told Howard that Labor could not support the Bill “but we would probably accommodate you rapidly in terms of its debate”.

Beazley knew Howard was playing wedge politics but he said, “the view was that voting against it would devastate us … I accepted that view”. However, the Senate voted against the Bill 34 votes to 30. The next day, “the phones began to ring in Beazley’s office early in the morning … ‘It was awful, just awful’, said one of his staffers. ‘The emotion was raw. So was the racism. People were sobbing and screaming down the line. How could Labor have done this?’ ‘My staff were completely shellshocked,’ said Beazley. ‘I can make a political argument but a girl on the switchboard finds it very hard to handle a sophisticated set of propositions about what you do when you suspend all laws’.”

Advice poured in to Beazley’s Office. The advice from Sussex Street, Labor Party headquarters in NSW, was: “Just pass the fucking thing and repeal it when you’re in power.”

New border protection legislation was presented to Labor. The party had decided to pass all immigration bills that would be presented to Parliament the next day. “Beazley hardly seemed interested as Ruddock and Halton took him through the provisions of the restrospective validation of the Bill.”

“When Labor’s capitulation was reported, the phone began ringing again in party offices across the country. Callers were shouting, sobbing and hysterical, ‘How could Labor do this?’ they yelled, slamming down the phone. Holocaust survivors rang to tell their life stories in terrible detail. Staffers were given fresh lines of spin each morning to help cope with the calls. They didn’t do much good. Candour seemed to work best ‘I know, I think it’s terrible too. But please hang in there’ … Staffers had no idea before they answered each call if they would be dealing with tears and pleading or triumphant congratulations. Labor veterans could not remember a time when the rank and file had been ambushed by such contradictory passions.”

After the drowning of 353 refugees on SIEV X a debate raged briefly between Howard and Beazley over whether Ahmaed Al-Zalimi should be allowed to fly to Jakarta to see his wife, the mother of three little girls who had drowned. Beazley wanted the issue to die. He could have pursued the idea of the mother coming to Australia but he didn’t. When asked why he didn’t he said:

    “You can pass all the moral judgments you like on me. I couldn’t care less. I’m trying to win an election campaign and get these evil bastards out of office.”

None of the Labor frontbench wanted to continue with the issue either. Duncan Kerr said: “By then, we were sick with cynicism.” No wonder Kim Beazley lost the most recent leadership ballot to Mark Latham.

Dark Victory should be read by every Australian before the next federal elections. Howard is still using asylum seekers in the same way now as he was two years ago. Witness what happened to the 14 Turks/Kurds who landed on Melville Island recently. Dark Victory is a textbook for those who want to use wedge politics. It is a damning account of what politics in this country has become!!

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