The Children Overboard Incident: Why Would We Do It?

Why Would We Do It?:

Refugees / Asylum Seekers and their importance to nation building and identity politics, as seen through the child overboard incident

“I am incredulous as to why there is scepticism because people just don’t make these sorts of things up.  To imagine that there would be the navy and ministers in some sort of conspiracy to put something like this in the public arena – why would we do it?” – Philip Ruddock.[1]

“…it is an absolute fact, the children were thrown into the water.”[2] – Peter Reith, perhaps a little too contemptuous of what Elton would call ‘administrative technicalities’.


Mid-afternoon October 6 2001, Australian surveillance aircraft detect a waterborne vessel illegally entering Australian waters, headed for Christmas Island.  The weary looking, faded old long liner craft, no doubt a prized fishing vessel many years past, is now a nameless Indonesian boat making its final ever journey across the Sunda Straight.  Even one of the last dignities of any respectable, battle weary vessel was stowed away – no longer a proud ship, and no longer with a prized cargo, her Indonesian flag was hoisted down before the Australian Navy could intercept her.  Yet that was not the last flag this sorry old girl would raise aloft; given time yet there was one last opportunity for the now nameless boat to both be re-named and one last flag hoisted: Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 4, in her last ignominious hurrah, would fly a make-shift dirty white flag, the international signal of distress: SOS.


Yet the presence in these waters off the  North-Western Australian coast of such a vessel, with her faded light blue gunwale, dark reddish-brown freeboard, and sea blue at the waterline, was unexceptional.  So too were her circumstances: a one-way paid mission to deliver a human cargo to Australian territory and give a fleeting chance of asylum to the so labelled asylum seekers.  Many such asylum seekers had travelled this route before, and many more would attempt to in the future, though not all would enjoy the luxury of flying their signal for distress to potential saviours.  So by all measures this particular boat and her human burden were, albeit in extreme circumstances, unexceptional.  But, with time, this boatload of asylum seekers would  prove exceptional; not because of their plight, but because of one distressed father and his scared, distraught little daughter.


Not long after the sun had risen on the day following their discovery, and with the navy ship The Adelaide astern, a man on that boat did something that would spark countless hours of media scrutiny, an exhaustive Senate Inquiry, chapters in books and student dissertations, and helped the Coalition win an election.  This solitary man moved into the wheelhouse and retrieved his anxious young daughter in her pink jacket, taking her to the guardrails that provide that imaginary feeling of security from the sea and the elements.  He fits a life jacket around her and fastens it.  He then kneels down to his daughter and sets about explaining something to her, like one would expect a good father to do, so that she understands what is about to happen.  He tells her that she has to jump overboard from the boat, either into the sea or into one of the navy rubber dinghies that shadowed the vessel, leaving her father, and with him what comfort she enjoyed.  But she does not understand.  She is distressed, crying and wailing.  She refuses to leave her father’s side, and flings herself around his neck.  So it is that her father makes the fraught and portentous decision to himself offer her up to the navy officers below.[3]  Amidst her tears and pleadings, he lifts his daughter over the guardrails and gestures to the crew in the rubber dinghy to come close by and take salvage of his little girl.  She is hysterical.  Two other asylum seekers onboard come to the aid of the situation, and remonstrate with the father, imploring him not to drop her overboard.  The RHIB[4] crew are now directly underneath the girl and are also screaming, “No, No,” to the father.  And then it is over.  He brings his daughter back to the relative safety of the boat, and takes her inboard.  Two members of the RHIB boarding party place themselves between the side of the vessel and the man and little girl, and the situation is totally diffused.  And that is the sum of the now infamous ‘child overboard incident’.




That, however, was not the end of that episode.  Within 4 hours of it being played out, Minister Ruddock, receiving reports of it through a convoluted and irregular chain of command, had, during the course of answering questions at the end of community consultations on recent asylum seeker legislation, given an unprompted brief of the event to journalists who would do their job of taking it to the eyes and ears of millions of Australians by days end, thus beginning the public life of the incident.  The Minister’s brief, however, was no accurate representation of what happened.  In his version, a number of children were thrown overboard by the asylum seekers, “with the intention of putting us under duress.”  How this misinformation came to exist is an answerable question, but beyond the purview of this paper.  What this paper is concerned with is the fact that, irrespective of whether this information was true or not, the government (and with them the Opposition) felt the need to broadcast it and ultimately incorporate it as a crucial part in their election strategy, and on the way make some very revealing comments and representations that tell us a great deal about the project of nation building and the dynamics of identity politics.


From the beginning of this affair the asylum seekers, who as of October 7 2001 were known to have thrown children overboard, were immediately constructed as aberrations.  When the comments of the political players are viewed en masse very particular constructions emerge, each a fragment of a grand totalisation, and it becomes quite clear that very particular ideas, notions and understandings are being appealed to. John Howard is a case in point.  Some of his first comments were: “It doesn’t speak volumes for some of the people on the vessel, suggestions that children were thrown overboard.  That is a sorry reflection on their state of mind.”[5]  What does he mean by “their state of mind”?  He makes that clear the following day when he declares: “I find that is against natural instinct.”[6]  State of mind; natural instinct.  These are words that transport our thoughts to notions of what makes up civilised man.  Civilised man is a civilised mind, no?  These people (them) are fundamentally different.  Whereas in the past differentiation could be a simpler process by means of classifying people black, white or yellow (and it was socially, politically and legally acceptable), here people can be identified as different (indeed, deviant) by accepted mental and moral classification. They are different and deviant because they have so clearly shown us that their state of mind, their instincts (and that word connotes a powerful sense of savagery, n’est-ce pas?), are not like those of Australians.  And therein notions of temporality and progress are invoked.


On the other side (by a vanishingly small margin) of that centre node on the political spectrum, Kym Beazley also appeals to notions of deviance.  For Beazley these aberrant people are not just different, not just behind and apart from our standards of civilisation; no, worse.  They are a disease; they are pathogenic; thus, they are polluting and a danger to us (and by knowing what endangers our community, we know who our community is – this is Cohen’s notion of deriving a sense of identity negatively).  Beazley warns, “you’re not going to cure this until you’ve got a cop on the beat for 52 weeks of the year”.[7]  “A cop” for deviance, a “cure” for disease.  Beazley is emphatic: “I can tell you this, when Laurie Brereton goes there [Indonesia] after the election… he won’t be coming back empty handed, and we’ll have a cure to the problem.”  That sounds suspiciously like (neo-)colonialism: white-man (now multicultural man, but still us) goes to their lands and is victorious in his conquests; white-man irrupts into their Time (normally we conceive that it is they who irrupt into our Time) and cures them of backwardness and depravity.  Or alternatively, Australia will have Indonesia deal with their own problems – these blights on our immigration zone will be smote: a cure for disease.  This earnest entreaty to beware of dangers that threaten our sense of community is a staple in the politics of identity.  The prime example of this type of politics and these dynamics at their fecund peak is war.  In peace border protection comes a clear second.  When John Howard proclaims, “We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,”[8] he is really saying that we know who we are by who we reject.  Greens Senator Bob Brown decried, “This is not an exercise in war.  It’s an exercise in politics.”[9]  As they are not mutually exclusive, perhaps it is both?


As Anderson explains, the act of sharing fears is an essential aspect to constructing and reinforcing unitary and largely imagined community identities.  This is the us versusthem mentality.  Who the them is remains unimportant; so long as there is an identifiablethem we know that there is an us (and we must fight to retain this imagined identity!). It is the sharing of the fear that is important, not whether it is real or imagined.  And so when the following comments were made by John Howard, the thickening of the air, quickening of the blood and chill up the spine were ameliorated by the comfortingly familiar warm feeling resulting from the notion that we really do have a unitary identity:  “There is a possibility some people having links with organisations that we don’t want in this country might use the path of an asylum-seeker in order to get here.”[10]  In this context of war-speak, Philip Ruddock, when telling of the children thrown overboard, informs that it was “clearly planned and premeditated,”[11] thus making it, if not an act of war, then at the least an act of criminality – of deviance.  And that is un-Australian.  What is Australian?  Not that.  Simple logic, or a Cartesian nightmare?


Kym Beazley (among others) often appealed to the basic images we have of ourselves – egalitarian, just, ‘little Aussie battlers’, etc.  What is notable is that references to our good Australian qualities (which, shared as a community, are an instrument of inclusiveness) has become synonymous with suggestions that other people do not share these values, and more importantly, that it is fundamentally a good Australian thing to do to reject other peoples despite our purported values that would have us accept them.  This is the binary functioning of inclusion and exclusion working off each other.  Kym Beazley says, “We have to appeal to what is best in our community – the better angels of our nature, as old Abe Lincoln said, not meanness of spirit but generosity, fairness, equality of opportunity, giving each human being the capacity to develop themselves to the best of their ability.”[12]  Yet are Australians also meant to understand that this means we must reject those who will apparently threaten these qualities, despite the logical mis-step?  Reduced to its simplest, Australia is told that for this great nation to include, we must exclude.  John Howard says it best: “We are a humane nation, but…”[13]


For exclusion to function as a tool of identity politics and nation building, the one indispensable element is that they are identifiable.  Where in the past colour was sufficient, today overt racism is prohibited.  For this reason racialism must now manifest in more subtle and accepted forms.  In the last decade this has been done through ethnic categorisation – allocating persons to groups, objective and subjective, depending on what diacritics are used to define membership.  With boat people that mostly means cultural diacritics, where persons are assigned to certain groups based on assigned cultural characteristics.   These include religion, familial customs, traditions, language, notions of law and justice, social attitudes, and, broadly, values.  So when John Howard says, “I don’t find…people expressing racist sentiments about the illegal immigrants at all.  It is not a racially based policy,”[14] he is mostly correct.  Racist sentiment is not permissible, and so is not employed.  Instead, a different form of the same racialism is adopted.  Here, the replacement for racism is a nebulous ethnic categorisation which, though hard to identify in a taxonomy, dominates representations of asylum seekers in the context of politics.  John Howard claims, “We would apply the same approach irrespective of where the people were coming from…We would take the same attitude if they came from Italy or England or America or Japan.”[15]   But that point is unproven, and may be unlikely, and what is he suggesting is ultimately irrelevant.  Many circumstances and a lot of history would need to be rewritten before one of these strong Western nations became a refugee generator.  And were it that enough of the “ifs” were satisfied for that to be the case, to declare that you would employ the same methods against these people is merely to say that the process of Othering is a dynamic one capable of being adapted to present circumstance.  John Howard may insist he would employ the same mechanisms against the world at large, but that in no way affects the reality of those devices.


In deconstructing four sentences in one seemingly simplistic utterance by Alexander Downer,[16] the full panoply of devices employed can be seen in their stark normality, but puissant affect.

1.  “One can only assume that they did sink the boat deliberately.”  Appealing to the notion of the wretched[17] ethnic categorisation asylum seekers have been relegated to, what other possible inference can be made with these base people?[18]

2.  “These people have behaved abominably right from the start.”  Systematic wrongdoing, amplified by the sense that they have always done such throughout Time.  Why have they not changed?  Where are they stuck in Time?

3.  “The disgraceful way they treat their own children.”  Either an indicator of appalling familial customs or outright moral turpitude: this is the use of cultural diacritics.

4.  “Any civilised person would never dream of treating their own children in that way.”  The coup de grace.  Answering the question I pose above (Where are they stuck in Time?), it becomes clear that these wretched people are at an early stage on the spatio-temporal measure of worth, ie they are uncivilised (remember state of mind, instinct).  How could we possibly let them into our country?  But how glad we are that we know the boundaries of our imagined community by means of knowing the boundaries of theirs.


In the preceding paragraphs I have drawn attention to not just use of specific ideas or notions, but to the particular use of specific types of words.  It is my contention that these words are used not by divine coincidence, but are carefully worked to attain specific results.  This was never more clear than in the following exchange that took place over two days.  Liberal Senator Ross Lightfoot, a patriot scorned, rages, “Such attempts to blackmail Australia into accepting these uninvited and repulsive people only serve to harden our resolve of decent, balanced Australians.”[19]  John Howard’s simple, but revealing, response was: “I don’t agree with that language and I condemn it.”[20]  Ipso facto, these politicians are aware of the dynamics of parole.  A different type of example is provided by Philip Ruddock, speaking about the incarceration of asylum seekers.  He gives the vexed assurance: “If they are found to be refugees, they’re released immediately.  We have no refugees in detention.”[21]  This is a paronomasia.  True it is that once deemed at law to be a refugee the individual is freed.  But how to categorise the individual before such deeming?  Nothing has changed from the time of incarceration to the time of release, but for a legal distinction.  Yet by stating, “We have no refugees in detention,” (which is strictly true) Ruddock has conveyed the sense that these would-be-refugees are still the ‘illegals’, the ‘que-jumpers’, that, as deviants, must be controlled.  The point at which they change status and join our “marvellously diverse society”[22] as refugees is the point at which they are no longer a threat, but rather an integral actor in our imagined identity.  It is the consistent use of these types of words that achieve results.


As the election campaign of 2001 went, it was a success for identity politics.  The “absolute fact” that children were thrown overboard was revealed, two days before the election, to have been nothing more than wild scuttlebutt.  But that was inconsequential, for the focus remained on the aberrant Other regardless of what they may or may not have done.  The factual travesty belied a grandly successful exhibition of ideas about identity.  In the context of grand totalisations, the insignificant facts could not detract from abstract truth.  So what they had not done did not matter.  It was who they were and the threat they posed, whether real or imagined, that was important, as that spoke directly to the question, Who are we?  And in answering that the social contract was recast as the racial contract.  Though tempting to say the first casualty of politics is truth, with these circumstances at hand I think it more right to suggest the first casualty of the politics of identity is the identity of Australians. A naval officer aboard the HMAS Tobruk shares this lament.  He says:


“In the middle of the night I looked down from the bridge.  There’s two hatches open and it’s hot.  Through one, I could see a hundred people lying there on stretchers.  I thought, “It’s like a slave ship.”  I thought, “Jesus, I thought we were Australia, I thought we were a good bloody country.”  Onboard they don’t like to use the word prisoners, but they are.  At Ashmore Reef, it hit me – shit, we’re going like South Africa.  If Australia continues down this political path, it will be like apartheid here.  And people will think that’s what we do here.  But it’s not…They’re in our country – not in someone else’s.  And now we’re dumping them on piss-poor countries.  White people standing over brown people.  I don’t like it.” [23]

[1] The Australian, 9/11/01, p4.

[2] The Australian2/11/01, p1.

[3] The evidence including pictures, video-footage and numerous witness accounts, shows beyond any reasonable doubt that the father did not intend to throw his daughter overboard, but merely get her aboard the RHIB.

[4] Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat.

[5] The Australian08/10/01, p2.

[6] The Australian09/10/01, p1.

[7] The Australian08/10/01, p2.

[8] Comments made at the Liberal Party Policy launch on October ?, and repeated in a full page ad in The Sydney Morning Herald9/11/01, p5.

[9] The Australian08/10/01, p1.

[10] The Australian08/11/01, p1. The absurdity of such comments has been noted by many commentators, ie the length of time incarcerated and considerable scrutiny given to asylum seekers pasts is prohibitive.

[11] The Age8/10/01, p1.

[12] The Australian, 3-4/11/01, p24.

[13] Australian08/10/01, p1.

[14] The Australian10/11/01, p3 or 13.

[15] The Australian10/11/01, p3 or 13.

[16] As quoted in The Age10/10/01, p2.

[17] This is, in fact, the label used by Senator Ross Lightfoot: “one wonders just where these wretched people would be acceptable.” The Age11/10/01, p8.

[18] So wretched, in fact, that Phillip Ruddock, asked to describe who was thrown overboard,, thought it obvious enough to conclude:  “I imagine the sorts of children who would be thrown would be those who could be readily lifted and tossed without any objection from them, but I don’t have that level of detail.”  The Age10/10/01, p2.

[19] The Age, 11/10/01, p8.

[20] The Age12/10/01, p6.

[21] Insight, SBS, 28/6/01, transcript at

[22] John Howard, The Australian7/11/03, p4.

[23]Quoting a naval officer, The Australian10-11/11/01, p1, continuing p 4.

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