Tampa SAS commander remembers 'overreaction'

SPECIAL REPORT: Ten years ago, Peter Tinley was second-in-command of the SAS counter-terrorism force sent to Christmas Island by the federal government to keep the Tampa away.

The enduring images from the Tampa saga 10 years later are two-fold: of hundreds of asylum seekers massed on the ship's deck and of the special forces sent in to control them.

Peter Tinley was operating behind the scenes for those special forces at the time.

But 10 years later, it's the asylum seekers who remain on his mind.

And the politics of it all, as he sees it.

“Once we got there, I slowly realised that this was a political situation, as opposed to a strict military tactical situation, and we had to play our role and serve the government of the day in whatever wishes it gave us direction to do,” he told SBS.

Ten years ago, Peter Tinley was second-in-command of the SAS counter-terrorism force sent to Christmas Island by the federal government to keep the Tampa away.

In the years immediately after, he would be deputy commander and senior tactical commander for the SAS forces sent to Afghanistan and to Iraq.

The former major has been decorated for his service, made a Member of the Order of Australia, but he looks back at his service in the Tampa affair as completely out of order.

“We arrived on the basis that we had to consider all the possible options -- the threat profiles, as we called them -- that we might be confronted (by) going onto the Tampa," Mr Tinley told SBS.

“So, that's why there are images of men armed to the teeth, as you might say, climbing aboard the Tampa. We thought there was a potential for our boarding to be opposed, but that we had no particular information other than to cover every possible contingency.

“What, in fact, the guys found when they got on board was 400-plus ordinary refugees, very hungry, some who needed some medical attention, very scared and uncertain about what was happening, a particularly concerned sea captain who just wanted to offload his human cargo and discharge his duty according to international law ...

“So, the crew wanted to get on with its job, the refugees wanted to get off the boat. We were the meat in the sandwich to make the statement that the government of the day wanted to make, in relation to how it viewed border security," he added.

Peter Tinley, a state Labor politician in Western Australia today, says the situation on board the Tampa very quickly switched from a tactical assignment to a logistical effort.

He says, instead of military action, the soldiers moved to getting the asylum seekers fed and prepared for transfer, in whatever form the government decided that would take.

Mr Tinley himself was stationed on Christmas Island, not on the Tampa, to coordinate the situation the special forces found themselves in.

He manned the command post on the island, with the government sending directions from Canberra and he then relaying those directions to the soldiers on board.

One abiding image remains with him a decade later, representing the whole scene.

It involved the Norwegian ambassador, Ove Thorsheim.

“In hindsight, it was quite farcical, where there's the Norwegian ambassador, an internationally protected person, wishing to visit the Norwegian sovereign soil, in the form of the Tampa, and us getting instructions about whether he could or couldn't, would or wouldn't be able to, and, at one point, what tactics we might use to stall him, the Norwegian ambassador, getting onto the Tampa, as the government took legal advice about what would be the implications if they sought asylum through the ambassador,” Mr Tinley said.

“There was all sorts of toing-and-froing. So there was the Norwegian ambassador standing on the wharf, trying to get to the ship, us delaying -- or, or getting in his way -- waiting for instructions from Canberra. It was very raw. And the tension was palpable”.

In the end, the Ambassador did get onto the ship and, in fact, did receive a note from an asylum seeker.

But nothing went any further.

Peter Tinley praises both the Ambassador and Tampa captain Arne Rinnan for, as he puts it, “understanding the situation”.

That situation, in Mr Tinley's mind, was a complete overreaction by the Howard Government, a reaction mainly targeted at neither Norway nor the asylum seekers.

The prime target, he says he came to realise, was the Australian voter.

“The context for 2001 was particularly volatile. There was a lot of fear in the Australian community. Evidence of this was when Kim Beazley, then the opposition leader, decided that there was a point where he needed to resist ... to resist the Government and its intentions,” Mr Tinley said.

“The Labor Party polling numbers went through the floor. So that's the level of volatility that resided around this and many other issues. I think the message was domestic. I think the Government wanted to let everybody in Australia know that, 'This is a very serious situation -- in fact, so serious that we're going to send the SAS.'”

Mr Tinley suggests the Australian government was at a threshold in 2001 in its view towards border security.

And he is convinced the Tampa affair, its impact heightened by the public mood of the time, decided the election that November.

“I think that's very clear. But it was, in fact, an election based around fear.

“So, whilst the Tampa was a significant contributor to it, and border security was a significant contributor to the re-election of the Government, we mustn't leave out the impacts of 9-11, the fact that John Howard was in Washington at the time of it, and the responses that they had towards it.

“Those things are particularly important when you talk about the context of fear. Fear of terrorism, fear of border security, fear of loss of our way of life. Those sorts of things were the dog whistles that were used throughout the campaign and that returned the Government (to office),” he told SBS.

Peter Tinley left the army in 2006, unhappy as well with the decision to invade Iraq over its supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Three years later, he entered the West Australian parliament.

Now, 10 years after the Tampa, asked to describe the emotion he feels about it all, he jokingly apologises for answering like a politician and says he feels two.

“As I'm back in civilian life, I have a concern about where our identity is going. So my one emotion is concern, or dare I use the word fear, that this country's going down a moral fault-line, the likes of which our children will have to bear the burden of”.

Source SBS

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