How John Howard’s ‘Stop The Boats’ Paved The Way For Australia’s Borders Obsession

The fearful, parochial views of the state governments come right from Howard and Morrison's playbook.

john howard border restrictions scott morrison photo

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It seems silly now, but prior to COVID there was no shortage of people — to be fair, mainly from hard-right types with job descriptions like “Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs” and “Sky News On-Air Talent” — who regularly advocated for the removal of state governments on the grounds that they did nothing useful and just provided an expensive layer of government between the people that picked up your garbage and the people who negotiated our international trade deals.

It’s a nonsense position, to be clear — aside from anything else, getting rid of a level of government would require rewriting the entire Constitution and good luck getting that referendum up, Andrew Bolt — but it illustrates how the primacy of state sovereignty wasn’t considered that big a deal until fairly recently, outside of State of Origin matches and ragging on Adelaide.

However, Australia has spent the last two years enrolled in a masterclass on exactly what state governments are responsible for doing and how much it impacts people’s day to day lives. Responsibility for the public health systems, for one, and running schools and childhood education. And also the power to impose lockdowns, border closures, and not letting maskless people urinate on war memorials.

It now feels like the glorious compromise of Federation is under more pressure than any time since a bunch of beardy men tired of yelling at one another in 1901, as trust in the federal government has diminished while many state premiers have become hailed as saviours.

Victoria has no shortage of Dan Stans, who follow the outfit choices of Daniel Andrews as a spoiler on how much to despair as he rolls out the state’s daily COVID numbers. Gladys Berejiklian was so beloved in NSW that community anger over her recent resignation following the announcement that she was being investigated over allegations of corruption was about the timing of ICAC’s investigation rather than, say, that whole allegations-of-corruption thing. And WA premier Mark McGowan could pretty much declare plans to build a wall along his state’s eastern border confident that a majority of his constituents would agree that it would Make WA Great Again.

It’s a bad look for Scott Morrison, especially since those are the states he most needs to stay in power come election time. But without putting it too bluntly, it’s also very much the fault of him, his party, and a chap named John Howard.

Australia Is A Deeply Paranoid Country

It’s not going to come as any surprise that Australia is a deeply paranoid country with a massively unresolved attitude to outsiders, as befits a place that is simultaneously among the most successful and stable multicultural nations on Earth and also built on racial genocide and explicit, legislated white supremacy.

It’s worth noting that the White Australia policy wasn’t finally dismantled until nineteen-seventy-freaking-five under the Gough Whitlam Labor government, but it’s also important to acknowledge that the process began with the Liberal governments of Harold Holt, John Gorton and Billy McMahon once Robert Menzies was finally lured out of parliament with a picture of the Queen on the end of a piece of fishing line.

And for a good long while there both our major political parties were in lockstep over racism being a social ill, which manifested in cross-party support for increasing Australia’s refugee intake and a commitment to addressing decades of neglect within our Indigenous communities.

Whatever criticisms one might have of the governments of Malcolm Fraser (Liberal), Bob Hawke (Labor) and Paul Keating (also Labor) it’s undeniable that they were increasingly outward-looking administrations that acknowledged Australia’s opportunities and responsibilities as a wealthy liberal democracy in the Pacific region, and were also headed by leaders who weren’t proud bigots.

That all changed when John Howard swept into power with talk of sovereignty and strong borders, and a firm belief that Australia was actually just off the coast of England and within sight of the more hawkish bits of the US.

Howard took a rather different approach to his predecessors in terms of things like starting culture wars over history books he deemed insufficiently deferential to European colonisers, but it wasn’t until the late ’90s and the unexpected electoral success of a former Liberal candidate named Pauline Hanson that he and his party really started to see xenophobia as a thing that could win them federal elections.

It was the Howard government that invented the cruel form of bureaucratic torture that is the Temporary Protection Visa and began the policy of offshore detention for asylum seekers via prison camps on Christmas Island, Manus Island and Nauru, with Howard’s ringing declaration that “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

His government also brought in the Border Protection Bill, which was created to give the government the right to deny help or protection to vessels in Australian waters in the wake of the legal problems with denying the freighter MV Tampa entry with its cargo of 439 rescued asylum seekers in September 2001. That human rights debacle was followed by the Children Overboard scandal on 7 October 2001, at which time the PM kicked off his election campaign with the odious lie that asylum seekers deliberately sank their own boat and were literally throwing their children into the water to force Australian Naval personnel to bravely rescue them.

Australia is among the most successful and stable multicultural nations on Earth and also built on racial genocide and explicit, legislated white supremacy.

Howard has stuck by this absolutely extraordinary falsehood for decades, even as his trusted aides and even then-Immigration Minister Peter Reith admitted that yeah, it wasn’t remotely true.

Horrifically, that bit of responsibility-dodging was followed less than a fortnight later by the SIEV X catastrophe, when an asylum seeker vessel sank during a storm, drowning an estimated 146 children, 142 women and 65 men. And these would have certainly been a bigger deal had not a fairly large international drama occurred less than a month earlier in the US. On September 11. There were movies and everything.

The events at the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre and the hastily-concocted military debacles in the Middle East rather overshadowed the death of a few hundred brown people at sea, and also won the pro-war Howard re-election that November.

But, depressingly, both the Coalition and Labor took the win to mean that Australians supported increasingly cruel policies regarding asylum seekers. Thus began a hideous race to the bottom to show the major parties were Tough On Borders by Stopping The Boats — despite all the evidence being that Howard’s win was about fear of terrorism, not hatred of desperate people begging for help.

The Legacy

How is this relevant to what’s going on now? Glad you asked!

Australia’s pandemapalooza epoch arrived under the watchfully-avoidant eye of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a man who was at once a product of the Howard-era xenophobia (he literally has a shoddily-made trophy in his office of a refugee boat with the factually incorrect slogan “I Stopped These” emblazoned thereon) and also keen to reassure Australia that whatever is happening is absolutely someone else’s fault — or, in Sco-speak, “I don’t hold a hose, mate”.

So when the pandemic hit it didn’t take long for the “we’re all in this together” rhetoric to splinter as it became obvious that the virus wasn’t affecting every region the same way. And by necessity, that fed into the parochial mindset of states either furious about infections coming in from outside, or fuming about how they were still locked down while other states were taking sweet regional holidays and swanning around Bunnings.

And that has worked just fine for Morrison, for the most part. After all, it’s far more politically convenient for Melbourne to blame Sydney for their lockdown than for both cities to correctly attribute their case numbers on failures by the Morrison government in securing vaccine doses, managing income support, rolling out the jab schedule, and not stopping his idiotic, louder MPs from telling people that masks are communism and that they should take horse medicine.

…reinforcing the almost quarter-century of being told that safety equals hard borders.

That forced state governments to take what steps were available to them, which mainly consisted of lockdowns and border closures, again reinforcing the almost quarter-century of being told that safety equals hard borders. And that has been reaffirmed by the experience of WA, Queensland, Tasmania and SA who have remained largely COVID-free thanks to keeping all them filthy outsiders firmly outside.

And, ironically, after spending his entire political career telling Australians to be scared and distrustful of outsiders, Morrison is now struggling to convince the country that opening up again is a great idea — especially in the aforementioned COVID-free states who have been perfectly happy with their little parochial bubbles, thanks very much.

The fact that Scotty’s calling for people to go back to work despite rising case numbers is for transparently political reasons doesn’t help, admittedly, but the seeds of today’s cave-dwelling were sown when John Howard first saw the success of Pauline Hanson’s anti-Asian rhetoric and decided he’d have what she’s having.

It’s going to take another generation or more to overcome this cringing, cowardly, based-in-racism fear of being weakened by untrustworthy outsiders.

In any case, John Howard managed to win an election on the dead bodies of poor people he didn’t give a damn about — whether Morrison can do the same remains to be seen.

Andrew P Street is an Adelaide-based, Sydney-built journalist, author and broadcaster. Follow him on Twitter.

Photo Credit: John Howard by Impressions/Getty Images