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TAMPA TRIBUTE: SHINING A LIGHT ON DECENCY International Terminal, Station Pier. 16 May 2002
On 26 August 2001, the Norwegian ship Tampa made history, not for the first time, when it rescued 438 people, men, women and children, mostly Afghans, from a sinking ship and tried to take them to Christmas Island, the nearest landfall, only to face a six day stand off because of the Australian Governments refusal to let them land on Christmas Island. Then off the Tampa went to Nauru, and the beginning of the so-called -Pacific solution- for refugees.
It is a privilege to be able to pay tribute - even in absentia - to Captain Arne Rinnan, captain of the Tampa, to his crew, and especially the cook who showed amazing resourcefulness, and the Wallenius Wilhelmsen shipping line.
Captain Rinnan acted in the highest traditions of humanitarianism and the law of the sea, recognising that saving men, women and children, who faced death by drowning, involved a moral commitment of the highest level. He was not to know then that the compassion of his crew in saving was to become a matter of profound and divisive political controversy in Australia.
We had the choice of being the Good Samaritan, looking to our common humanity, or the Bad Samaritan, emphasising immediate self-interest. We could go for nobility of spirit or meanness - and we chose the latter. Captain Rinnan has received many high awards for his humanitarian actions, including the Nansen Medal, named for his famous compatriot.
The Charter Statement for Australians for Just Refugee Programs is: We believe that Australias policies toward refugees and asylum seekers should at all times reflect respect, decency and traditional Australian generosity to those in need, while advancing Australias international standing and national interests. We aim to achieve just and compassionate treatment of refugees, consistent with the human rights standards which Australia has developed and endorsed.
The Tampa rescue occurred just 16 days before the Al-Quaida attack on the US on 11 September, an event which profoundly destabilised Australia and contributed to panicky, but understandable, over-reactions. One side effect was to reinforce the impact of appeals to fear. All of us have a combination of reactions and instincts, we can be open hearted and optimistic, or fearful and defensive. We all have aspects of our personalities that we feel uneasy about: meanness, insecurity and self-interest.
There have been times in our history when Australia has been generous and open hearted and times when it has been very mean. In 1938 at the Evian Conference about dealing with Jewish and other refugees from Hitler, Australia took a flint hearted position, saying that we did not want to import Europes problems, or to increase racial differences, and that refugees should get back in the queue. In the post World War II years, Australia was generous, as it was after Tienanmen Square and with refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.
Words are like bullets - or chain-saws: tremendous damage can be inflicted very quickly, and it may take years to recover. Politically, there is an emphasis on simple solutions for complex problems, an appeal to the lowest common denominator in public discourse and there was a moral and intellectual vacuum (on both sides) in the 2001 Election.
Racism and fear of difference is perhaps more significant now in Australia than it has been for the past 30 years. After White Australia officially ended under Harold Holt and Gough Whitlam, some of us deluded ourselves that Australia had become a model of tolerance, and multiculturalism was accepted as part of the national ethos. In 2002, we can be less confident about this. Fear of difference has been compounded by terrorism and other horrors, before and after 11 September 2001. Appeals to fear are quick, easy and dirty, while rebuilding confidence is hard, complex and long term. Words are bullets - or chain saws - and damage caused quickly may take years to repair, if ever. The demonising of refugees in the 2001 campaign certainly hit the- electorates political G spot- as Geoffrey Barker put it in the Financial Review.
There is a striking paradox between our public policy on economic and humanitarian issues. Economically, we are urged to embrace a borderless world eagerly, in the context of globalisation, lowering the barriers, while raising the fence higher against refugees, pushing more border protection and treating victims as criminals. This reflects our growing preoccupation with economics - and the conviction that all values have dollar equivalents. We all fear the unknown, darkness, death, mutilation, pain, loss - but fear, an instinctive defence mechanism, is very destructive of judgment.
Fear of difference - of other cultures, races, religions, a turbulent climate of suspicion and intolerance, increases the probability of ceaseless escalation, an unending cycle of violence, terror, reprisal and retribution.
Tragically, this fear of difference is extending to countries in Western Europe, just as it has in Australia.This cycle has dominated the Middle East, much of the Balkans, parts of Africa and Ireland for decades, in some cases centuries. We are all citizens with an obligation to participate fully in the way our country is run but we have an even higher obligation - as humans.
Crude appeals to fear, to immediate self-interest are politically potent, but we should be invoking, as Abraham Lincoln said, - The better angels of our nature- recognising that our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, is: - infinitely complex; infinitely precious; infinitely vulnerable; infinitely destructive; infinitely capable of the sublime, the transcendent.
Globalisation appears threatening, when decisions that change millions of lives are made remotely, by faceless, nameless authorities, and when political capacity through democratic procedures in the nation-state become ineffectual or irrelevant. It is not surprising when angry, damaged individuals then embrace tribalism, or fundamentalism, whether religious, cultural or ethnic.
It is almost impossible for us to put ourselves inside the head of a suicide bomber, whether kamikaze or mujihadeen, or indeed of our own warriors, although we judge them by different standards. Terrorist, freedom fighter, patriot: are the terms synonymous?
The issues I have been talking about have been haunting me for years, and I often turn to the writings of the great French 17th Century philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, especially his Pensees, a collection of his extraordinarily penetrating thoughts.
- Man is but a reed, the feeblest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him. A vapour or a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his killer, for he knows that he is dying and that the universe has the advantage over him. The universe knows nothing of this. Thus all our dignity consists in thought. It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery, not on space or time, which we could never fill. Let us then strive to think well; that is the basic principle of morality.
Captain Rinnan, and the crew of S. S. Tampa, acted to uphold that basic principle of humanity.
by Barry Jones
Australians for Just Refugee Programs

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