No regrets for Ruddock 10 years after Tampa

Ten years after the Tampa, former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock says he wouldn't do anything differently, Ron Sutton reports.

One year after the pivotal Tampa boat crisis, Philip Ruddock was asked if he had any regrets over the Australian Government's hardline stance against the asylum seekers.

The then immigration minister said no and suggested the person the reporter ought to ask whether he would do anything differently was the ship's captain, Arne Rinnan.

Now, it is 10 years after the Tampa, and Philip Ruddock still says -- without a second's hesitation -- he would do nothing different.

But, these days, he points the blame for the affair not at the captain, but at the asylum seekers themselves.

“If what you're arguing is that you simply give way to people who stand over you, as a country, you know, in my view, that has a far more deleterious downside, and you have to respond to it with a degree of determination. And that's exactly what we did,” Mr Ruddock said.

The degree of determination, as Mr Ruddock puts it, was to send special-forces counter-terrorism troops onto the ship to keep it from landing in Australian territory.

It is that degree that most troubles the former second-in-command of the force sent to stop the Tampa, Peter Tinley.

Mr Tinley says the Government overreacted and left the soldiers as the meat in the sandwich between asylum seekers and a government making a political statement.

But the former immigration minister, living a quieter life as an opposition backbencher today, insists the Government reaction was appropriate.

“Who, if you have a vessel that intends to disobey your instructions, do you use to actually take over the vessel and assert your authority? I mean, if the police had a tactical-response group that could operate at sea, you might well have used them,” he told SBS.

Philip Ruddock argues Prime Minister John Howard was actually conservative in how he used his military forces when he had other options for enforcement.

He says many people later wanted the Government to use soldiers to protect the Woomera immigration detention centre when protests broke out but Mr Howard declined.

Mr Ruddock says the Howard Government felt civilian power should be used where adequate but areas like customs and surveillance operations of the seas sometimes needed help.

“Nobody argues that, if you've got a major flood, that it's inappropriate to use some of the military capability to assist the civilian power in handling the crisis. Nobody argues that you wouldn't do that.

“These matters are matters of judgment for the government of the day, with advice as to whether or not the civilian power is able to do it adequately,” he told SBS.

Critics, including the then Labor opposition, have long maintained the Tampa showdown was nothing more than a pre-election move -- and a successful one at that.

Arguably their main point, from the outset, was the Howard Government had raised little concern over the 213 previous boats carrying asylum seekers during its time in power.

Mr Ruddock has always denied an election plot, and still does, arguing there were other valid reasons to block the ship from Christmas Island.

For one, he says, it was unfairly costing the boat's owner, Wilhelmsen Lines, millions of dollars to divert there when Indonesia was en route to the boat's Singapore destination.

Mr Ruddock acknowledges Wilhelmsen was backing Captain Rinnan's plea to take the asylum seekers to Christmas Island so the Tampa could continue its voyage.

But the former immigration minister says that was the best outcome for the shipping line and the captain only after the asylum seekers resisted going to Merak.

And, similarly, he discounts Captain Rinnan's argument that the asylum seekers needed medical help, saying that was not the case when the Tampa first reached them.

“He had people that he'd rescued at sea, and they wouldn't have been in any particular shape at the point in time in which he rescued them and was taking them to Indonesia.

“There was no particular issue about their condition until they had forced the vessel to change its route and bring them to Christmas Island. And these matters get down to, "How do you put pressure on Australia?," Mr Ruddock said.

The asylum seekers' health when they boarded the Tampa has been debated over the years.

At the time, Captain Rinnan told a Norwegian magazine up to a dozen people from the sinking K-M Palapa 1 were unconscious after being carried onto the Tampa.

He said several had dysentery and one pregnant woman was suffering abdominal pains.

An Australian army doctor reported four people seriously ill when he boarded after the SAS troops arrived, although that proves nothing specifically about the moment of rescue.

Regardless, Mr Ruddock says many people forget, when they think back to the Tampa affair, that the asylum seekers, as he phrases it, put the Government under duress.

“When you think about it, those people should have been happy to have been rescued at sea and been happy to have been taken to the most convenient and closest place where they could get support and assistance, which was Merak.

“But they stood over -- effectively, blackmailed -- the captain of a ship to turn it around and to take it off its course, to bring them to Australia, where they essentially ... were not welcome”.

The solution to the stand-off with the Tampa was the beginning of what would become known as the Pacific Solution.

It began with sending the ship and its asylum seekers to Nauru and went on to involve much more, including excising islands like Christmas Island from Australia's migration zone.

Again, 10 years later, Philip Ruddock says he has no regrets.

“My view is that all of the elements that we used were all necessary and, collectively, played a part in bringing the (people) smuggling to an end. In my view, it is not a menu that you can pick and choose from and say, "Well, look, we only have to do this, and this will make it work."

“My view is that it was the offshore processing, it was the excision, it was the way in which we managed to significantly reduce the role of the courts in managing these matters, it was the Temporary Protection Visas, it was the return of boats where it was safe and possible to do so, all of these measures”.

Source SBS

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