In August 2001, Peter Tinley was second in command of the SAS counterterrorism troops deployed to Christmas Island by the government of then Prime Minister John Howard to maintain the Tampa a way.
He oversaw the military operation involving 45 heavily armed soldiers who boarded the ship on August 29, 2001, after the ship’s unauthorized entry into Australian waters.
But Mr Tinley, who is now a Labor MP in Western Australia and a former minister of state, told nine.com.au about the political dimensions of the Tampa case are his strongest memories.
“Once I got there, I began to realize that this was a political situation, as opposed to a strict military tactical situation. ” he said.
“We came to the basis that we had to consider all the possible options – the threat profiles, as we called them – that we might be faced (by) going to Tampa.”
Mr Tinley said the SAS unit which seized the Tampa was heavily armed and prepared for possible violent opposition.
“Actually what the guys found when they got on board were over 400 ordinary, very hungry refugees, some in need of medical attention, very scared and unsure of what was going on, a captain of particularly worried ship that just wanted to unload its human cargo and discharge its duty in accordance with international law.
Mr Tinley has long argued that the deployment of the SAS was an overreaction of the Howard government.
“I can’t help but think that Prime Minister John Howard viewed the SAS as something that would resonate politically with the message of border security,” he said.
But Mr Howard insisted his government’s response to the Tampa affair was needed to deter people trying to reach Australia by boat and save lives.
He told nine.com.au this week that while Australians support immigration, they expect the government to control it.
“It was decisive action that defined my government’s determination to uphold the integrity of our immigration policy,” Howard said in a statement.
“The Australian people will always support a grand immigration program if they believe the government will properly control the flow of immigrants.”
Mr Tinley said the Howard government’s response to the Tampa incident was an example of the “Fortress Australia” policy which was repeated by his successors.
“This policy is proving popular with the public – and plays on a sense of chauvinism dating back to World War II,” he said.
Mr Tinley highlighted how the current federal government launched a similar response during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He admits that the Morrison government’s swift decision to close international borders has certain merits.
“It was politically convenient for the Prime Minister to resuscitate Fortress Australia. And many people supported this decision.”
Below are the key events of the Tampa case and an explanation of how it changed Australian policy towards asylum seekers.
On August 26, 2001, the MV Tampa rescued 433 people, many of them Afghans, from a damaged fishing boat, Palapa 1, in the Indian Ocean.
The Palapa had been at sea for three days, setting out from Java in an attempt to reach Christmas Island where the passengers planned to seek asylum.
Australian authorities had appealed for the boat to be rescued.
The TampaCaptain Arne Rinnan intended to take those rescued to an Indonesian port, but after desperate pleas from some asylum seekers, he changed his plans and headed for Christmas Island.
As the ship prepared to enter Australia, Captain Rinnan requested permission to dock at Christmas Island, saying several of the asylum seekers were gravely ill.
While the federal government provided food and medical supplies, it insisted that the Tampa was unable to dock at Christmas Island. Then Prime Minister John Howard promised that none of the asylum seekers would be allowed to set foot on Australian soil.
Frustrated with Australian authorities, Captain Rinnan declared an emergency and entered Australian waters without permission.
The federal government responded by ordering the SAS to board and seize the vessel.
What Happened to Asylum Seekers in Tampa?
After SAS soldiers boarded the ship, the asylum seekers were detained on an Australian Navy vessel.
During this time, the federal government passed a series of laws known as the Pacific Solution.
The laws meant that asylum seekers arriving by boat could be treated abroad.
Within days and after diplomatic lobbying, New Zealand and Nauru agreed to take the asylum seekers and process their refugee claims.
While 150 were transferred to New Zealand, the rest remained in Nauru, some for up to three years.
Some with successful refugee claims eventually settled in Australia.
The Tampa affair and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States made immigration and national security a major political element in the Australian federal elections that year.
In November 2001, Mr. Howard’s coalition government was re-elected.
Pacific Solution’s policy of dealing with asylum seekers abroad has been a cornerstone of Australian government policy since 2001.