The MV Tampa waiting off Christmas Island in 2001
At the 2001 Federal election the Liberal Party festooned polling booths with bunting displaying John Howard's face, and the infamous words: "We will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come". (In other words, we will not be bound by our international obligations towards refugees, nor listen to the pleadings of the international community already dealing with far larger numbers of refugees, but we will simply suit ourselves).
We had just had the arrival of the Tampa, and the cruel Pacific solution (with its name eerily echoing another, far worse "solution") improvised to prevent the political embarrassment of having refugees land on our soil. We in Liberty Victoria took proceedings in the Federal Court to challenge the government's treatment of those on board. Bob Brown immediately and publicly condemned the Howard government - in an act of courage which many thought at the time would amount to political suicide. Kim Beazley, who led the Labor Party, refused to take a stand, and lost the 2001 election.
John Howard ruled Australia for a further six years. In that time the modest amelioration of the asylum seeker policy came not from any pressure applied by Labor, but from the Liberal Party's own back bench.
With the change of government in 2007, we thought at first things would be better. The Rudd government did get rid of the Pacific solution, as well as the harsh temporary protection visas, which denied refugees any access to services here. Processing of claims became more streamlined.
But there were ominous signs:
- the new government did not roll back John Howard's excision of Australian territory to deny ordinary legal process to asylum seekers arriving by boat;
- the new government did complete the large and expensive - and out of the way - prison for asylum seekers on Christmas Island;
- the new minister, Senator Chris Evans, rapidly developed a reputation for refusing any of the many asylum claims which required his ministerial discretion to be exercised.
The opposition turned up its xenophobic rhetoric about boat people - in reality only a very small trickle - and the Rudd government went to water.
The government's first major step backwards was categorizing "people smuggling" as a security issue. They have made people smuggling (which of course is code for boat people) something which ASIO and other security agencies must now target.
Can anyone seriously contend that a few people arriving in leaky boats to flee situations of dire personal danger somehow constitute a threat to our way of life, our systems of government, or the integrity of our nation? Any leader who peddles such a ludicrous proposition really does place our country at risk, because they cannot tell a genuine danger from an ersatz one.
And now the Rudd government has decided to freeze consideration of asylum claims for Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees until after the election. This is a display of moral cowardice.
First, it is not true that the situation in those countries is stable and that there is no longer any threat to people fleeing them. Of course, the regimes in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka - each with poor, if not terrible - human rights records, insist that none of their citizens is at risk. Almost no one familiar with the situations in those countries would agree. If the countries of origin really are so safe, why not process asylum seekers now and prove it before the relevant tribunals?
Secondly, each claim should be considered on its own merits. The same approach will not work for everyone fleeing from a country: their circumstances will vary.
Thirdly, to keep human beings locked up behind razor wire to suit a party's political convenience is an act of inhuman cruelty, and it diminishes Australia as a civilized country. Suffering human beings are not political pawns.
Fourthly, the government's actions are in clear breach of our international obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees - which Australia has ratified, and which we helped draft. So our actions also show us to be an unreliable international partner.
The Rudd government could have stood up to the shock jocks and the talkback panic merchants, and they could have swatted away the schoolyard name calling of the opposition - and they would have taken Australia with them. Australians do not want to be racist, to be bad neighbours, or to deny basic humanitarian care.
But the government has lost that chance now. And they have lost far more. They have lost their moral standing as a government, and they have lost any claim to leadership on this issue.
And they have shamed Australia in the eyes of the world.