I wish I could go along with Guy Rundle’s optimistically Manichean essay in yesterday’s Crikey contrasting Howard/Ruddock and Rudd in their treatment past and future of boat people, but I cannot. I suspect Rundle’s real target audience here was Kevin Rudd. His essay was essentially an encouraging homily directed at the Prime Minister, not an analysis.

Granted, Howard was full of dark xenophobic attitudes which I do not think Rudd as a civilised person shares. However, my detailed analysis of how Australian policy towards boat people degenerated during the prolonged boat people crisis of 1999-2001 (see my book A Certain Maritime Incident and later follow-up writings) shows a more complex picture than Rundle offers.

Howard and key senior officials pushed the border protection agencies (Defence Central and ADF, AFP, DIMIA, AMSA, DFAT) towards tougher and tougher policies aimed at discouraging boat people and disrupting their movements. These policies started with bluffs and phoney threats of crocodiles, sharks, towbacks etc. They finished with clear systemic human rights violations in laws and procedures.

Very real questions have never been answered as to whether people (including the 353 mostly women and children on SIEV X) died as a result of increasingly harsh policies of forced towback, impoundment after interception in their own boats for prolonged periods under stress and danger, and deliberately delayed, perfunctory, or non-existent search and rescue procedures for anticipated or detected boats.

Attitudes engendered by these callous policies sank deep into the culture of the agencies concerned, and are still apparently present there as seen in a recent interception incident.

I know from my research into SIEV X — and this is confirmed by Marr and Wilkinson’s independent analysis in Dark Victory — that Howard and key Canberra officials led the agencies along this road to perdition one step at a time, as the pressure of boat people numbers increased through 1999-2001. There was quiet resistance on the way from some honourable officers. How far the agencies went along the road, in terms of outcomes, is something that only a judicial enquiry with access to all records of the time could answer.

Labor in government is not pursuing this matter, choosing to let sleeping dogs lie.

I do not assume that under pressure of a possible increase in boat people numbers, an Australian Labor government would not start down the same slippery slope of escalating threats and disruptions. Maybe it has started already? I can only hope, with Guy Rundle, that it will not go as far as Howard did. Sadly, those who care about Australia’s ethical standards must remain vigilant, as well as hopeful that Labor will go on doing the right thing.