2001 was the final year of the Howard government’s second term in office.
It began with the government in a political defensive position, performing poorly in opinion surveys, but ended in November with a third consecutive victory.
Two epic political developments – the “Tampa crisis”, in which the government ordered Australian troops to board a foreign vessel carrying rescued asylum seekers to stop them landing on Australian soil, and the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States – were decisive in the government’s re-election.
For the next 20 years, Tampa and Sept 11 remained important factors in Australian politics. These events drove a decisive turn towards “securitisation” in political discourse and public policy.
Elections on issues that mattered: Tampa and 2001’s national security election
Securitisation, in a political context refers to the transformation of regular public policy items into security issues. This is used to justify unusual actions as necessary for the survival of the state or the safety of its citizens.
Australia embraced this new, securitized mindset in 2001. It was partly driven in part by events, but also in a significant way by political choice.
This pivot can be seen in the 2001 Cabinet papers released today by National Archives of Australia. They show domestic submissions that are free from any securitisation mindset and dominate until Tampa and September 11th.
These papers show that the government was considering possible responses to the sharply increasing number of asylum-seekers arriving by sea in the first half 2001.
This culminated in the so-called “Pacific Solution” of offshore detention, which unfolded over the last week of August.
The September 11 terrorist attacks happened shortly after. Although the events are not related, they became merged in popular perception through both chronological and political proximity.
Strong support for Beazley’s Labor opposition was eroded due to the combined weight of both the Tampa attacks and the September 11 attacks.
All of this meant the 2001 “khaki election” was conducted against the backdrop of perceived external threat and military action abroad. After allowing for an expansion of the House of Representatives by two seats, the government, which was in electoral trouble earlier this year, was returned with the same majority.
Five of the 2001 Cabinet Papers directly resulted from the September 11 attacks.
One of these – “Options for defence enhancement for domestic security”, dated October 2 2001 – is historically significant as a window into a government grappling with a sudden shift in perceived domestic security needs. It also addresses questions about whether the continued relevance of strategic fundamentals that were adopted a year ago in the United States is appropriate. White Paper for 2000 Defence.
Interestingly, there is no “Pacific Solution” Cabinet submission nor decision in the 2001 release.
Although the 2001 federal politics of 2001 are dominated by memories of Islamic terrorism and asylum-seeker policy, they do not dominate 2001 Cabinet papers.
Two-thirds of a decade had passed before September 11, which marked the beginning of a new securitized era in Australian politics and global politics.
Most of the 2001 papers are concerned with domestic policy across a wide range of areas, including many of continuing concern – notably climate change.
These papers are important in the climate and energy policy areas.
They show that the Howard government held a much more nuanced view about climate change and its significance, than any Coalition government. These papers, along with last year’s, provide context for the Coalition’s proposal of a carbon trading scheme in the run-up to the 2007 election.
Cabinet papers 2000: The Coalition prior to climate denialism, but on a path towards offshore detention
We can see a coalition cabinet that is not yet controlled by resource sector interest, and expressly restricts its resources minister’s access to the untrammelled advancement of those interests.
The government can be seen working in familiar co-operative frameworks with the states for national actions.
Cabinet settled several agenda items in May in preparation for the June COAG meeting. These included a national energy policy framework and a national salinity action plan.
The COAG agenda also included the Reconciliation framework. Cabinet noted that “some state and territory governments had been actively campaign(ing) for a national apology to indigenous Australians”. Cabinet opposed such an apology.
Another paper states the government’s ongoing opposition to a treaty with Indigenous Australians.
In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic it is interesting that the government sought to reach a state agreement through COAG.
COAG Senior Officials must coordinate the high-priority review of and revision of national whole of-government frameworks to manage major emergencies such as FMD (foot & mouth disease).
Another interesting focus of the papers is on population policy.
Philip Ruddock (then immigration and multicultural affairs minister) had long advocated for greater public attention for Australian government-led population policy discussions. He merged discussions on long-term issues, such as declining fertility and an ageing population, with the related issues of skilled migration and the participation rate of older Australians and women in the workforce, and the environmental effects of high population levels.
2001 polls: The September 11 incident influenced the election outcome more than Tampa.
Ruddock was an enthusiast for population policy, but his ministerial counterparts were concerned about the political sensitivities that such discussions could cause. Cabinet voted at the beginning 2001
to continue to resist any formal population policy or setting of long-term population goals.
The Coalition’s relative electoral success federally has its roots in political lessons flowing from this pivotal year in contemporary Australian politics. While the Coalition continues to reap enormous political benefits from them, its opponents struggle with how to counter wedge politics.
The Howard government made security and immigration policy the primary and interrelated areas for its use.
From Tony Abbott’s ascension to the Liberal leadership onwards, energy policy and climate policy became key additional, interrelated, sites for wedge politics.
The consequences are ongoing.