Amplifying Outrage over Children Overboard

Andrew Herd

Published in Social Alternatives, Vol. 25, No. 2, Second Quarter 2006, pp. 59-63.

Abstract: The children overboard incident during the 2001 Federal election was one of the greatest political scandals in modern Australian history. The government accused asylum seekers of throwing children into the ocean in an attempt to blackmail the Australian government into granting them asylum. Even when the government knew it did not occur, they continued to maintain it did. The backfire model is used to analyse how the government went about this deception, implementing the methods of cover-up, devaluation of the target, reinterpretation of the event, official channels and intimidation and bribery. Finally, some general methods to counter similar government actions are outlined.

Recent events have led to renewed scrutiny of the Howard government's role in the children overboard incident. The Cole Royal Commission into AWB's payment of bribes to Saddam Hussein's regime has once again demonstrated the difficult nature of proving what ministers knew, and the associated lack of accountability. The tenth anniversary of the Howard government has provided an opportunity for people to recount the successes and scandals of the government, with the children overboard incident often cited as one of the largest smears on Howard's record. The changes to immigration law for asylum seekers arriving by boat, apparently introduced to appease Indonesian indignation over the granting of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) to 42 West Papuan asylum seekers, has ensured that Australia's treatment of asylum seekers has continued to be front page news.

Current interest in the children overboard incident provides an apt opportunity to reanalyse the role of the government, and to look at lessons activists can take from the affair. A useful tool for doing this is the backfire model, an extension of the concept of political jiu-jitsu. Political jiu-jitsu is a way of explaining how repression of nonviolent activists may rebound against the oppressor (Sharp 1973, 657). The backfire model extends this concept beyond nonviolent action to examine how groups with power and authority inhibit the formation of outrage within the community after an unjustified use of power. In the past the backfire model has been used to analyse censorship (Jansen and Martin 2004), the invasion of Iraq (Martin 2004) and the deportation of Scott Parkin, a US peace activist (Martin and Murray 2005). Each of these case studies have shown that, when faced with possible outrage over an unjust action, groups in power will often implement the same strategies. Understanding this, activists can study how a government, or any powerful organisation, attempts to reduce negative reaction against their violations, and develop strategies to counter this.

Using the example of the children overboard incident it is shown that the Australian Government implemented the strategies identified in the backfire model. By identifying these strategies, activists can develop and implement counter-strategies to bring about positive social change.

The Children Overboard Incident

During the 2001 Australian election the government reported that 'children wearing lifejackets were thrown into the sea when a vessel was stopped by HMAS Adelaide off Christmas Island' (Cornford and Grattan 2001). The truth was that this never happened (Marr and Wilkinson 2004).

To support their claims the government released photographs of the incident. However, the photographs were of the vessel sinking more than 24 hours later. Within hours of the release of the photographs, the Australian Defence Force (ADF), Australian Public Service (APS) and even the office of the Defence Minister knew the incident had not occurred and the photographs were of a different event, but the government entered the election, a month later, without the public knowing.

Nevertheless, this incident was central to the election that was characterised by John Howard's catchphrase, 'we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come'(Howard 2001). The Government was re-elected on 11 November 2001, with incidents such as Tampa, children overboard and SIEV X playing an important role. As was noted by a commentator after the election, 'the election triumph marked an extraordinary comeback for a man whose government was languishing 14 points behind the Labour opposition earlier this year' (Marks 2001). Victory in this election shows how successful the Government was in reducing outrage over its actions in the children overboard incident, and actually used the incident to increase support for the Government. The backfire model can be used to analyse how the Government managed this.

Backfire Model

The backfire model contains five strategies: cover-up; devaluation of the target; reinterpretation of the events; official channels; and intimidation and bribery. The Australian government used each of these strategies to reduce outrage over their role in the children overboard incident.


The cover-up undertaken by the Australian government in relation to the children overboard incident is not of the incident itself. The government was more than happy to reveal that children had been thrown overboard, as it was politically advantageous for them to do so. The cover-up came in the weeks and months after the incident occurred.

Reports confirm senior figures in the government were aware by 10 October that there were severe doubts over the veracity of the claims. In fact, witness statements had been gathered from all on the HMAS Adelaide by 11 October, and the Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie had been told, 'there is no evidentiary support for claims that children had been thrown overboard' (Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident 2002, 66).

Senior officials within the government and military were therefore fully aware of the inaccuracy of the first reports and covered this up from the Australian people. In the lead up to the election revelations that senior ministers within the Australian government had lied to the Australian public, either purposefully or accidentally, would have been extremely damaging to the government's chances of re-election.

The current AWB scandal has once again demonstrated the difficulty of determining what a minister knows. Although ministers were provided with a number of cables indicating the bribes being paid by AWB to the Iraqi regime, they have claimed not to have read any of them, or that they 'don't recall' (Munro 2006). As with the children overboard incident, it is extremely difficult to prove they knew or did not know.  

Devaluation of the Target

Devaluation and dehumanisation of asylum seekers was a central component of the government's campaign to reduce support for asylum seekers. The government cast asylum seekers as criminals, queue-jumpers, economic refugees and even terrorists (The Age 2001; Ruddock 2001; Seccombe 2001). Reports of asylum seekers throwing children overboard led to the government adding another insult to this list: child abusers. The government's argument was that if these people really loved and cared for their children they would not risk their lives by sailing in such dangerous vessels and then throwing them overboard.

We now know, as the government did soon after the event, that asylum seekers did not throw any children overboard. By questioning the asylum seekers' concern for their children, the government hoped to stigmatise the asylum seekers and demonstrate their unsuitability for Australia.

Crock and Saul (2002, 43) report that people smugglers charge between $3,800 and $40,000 for the trip to Australia. People who paid this amount of money, for the chance of a better life for themselves and their family, clearly care for the welfare of their children. The care the asylum seekers had for their children continued while onboard SIEV 4. In his testimony to the Senate Committee, Commander Banks notes that when SIEV 4 began to sink 'they [the asylum seekers] passed the baby to our RHIB [rigid hull inflatable boat] and we took it away as one of the first people off the SIEV' (Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident 2002, 163).

Howard has continued to devalue the asylum seekers on board SIEV 4. When questioned over the incident for the tenth anniversary of his government, he is reported to not believe they deserve an apology from him, as 'they irresponsibly sank the damn boat, which put their children in the water,' going on to say that they 'don't carry any visible signs of being demonised' (Megalogenis 2006). However, the government did not intend to hurt the asylum seekers by demonising them, it seems its aim was to reduce public support for the asylum seekers, while increasing its own.

Reinterpretation of the Events

The Department of Defence passed the photographs to Ross Hampton on 9 October, without the captions identifying the event.   The Defence Minister released the photographs the next day as evidence the incident occurred. Brigadier Gary Bornholt, who was military adviser in the Public Affairs and Corporate Communication Unit of the Defence Department, immediately informed Hampton the photographs were a misrepresentation, but Hampton says he never received the mobile telephone message. By the next morning, the head of the Defence Department, Dr Allan Hawke, and Admiral Barrie were both aware the photographs were misrepresentations.

Barrie went on to tell Reith on 11 October,

the photographs he had put out did not describe the events as he portrayed on the 7.30 Report. I cannot remember his precise response, save that we had a discussion about there being a great deal of confusion about the photographs. But I do recall that our conversation was testy (Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident 2002, 83).

Reith and his office were therefore well aware of the misrepresentation of the photographs within a day of their release. To continue to use the photographs as evidence of the incident, when being fully aware they did not represent the incident, is a clear attempt to reinterpret the meaning.

John Howard has continued to reinterpret the events surrounding children overboard, particularly surrounding the responsibility of the asylum seekers in the sinking of the boat. In an editorial during the 10th anniversary, The Australian (28 February 2006) comments that John Howard has been, 'rewriting the record some five years later with a version that still appears to conflate different events on separate days and present desperate people as monsters ready to put their children at risk of drowning.'

Official Channels

Opposition parties in the Senate established the Senate Select Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident after the election to investigate the circumstances around the children overboard incident. The government was against the creation of this committee, labelling it 'politically prejudiced because of the non-Government majority on it' (Howard 2002).

In a bid to lessen the effectiveness of the inquiry, the government ordered none of the ministers or their staffers involved in the incident to face the inquiry. This decision ensured the committee would be unable to produce concrete findings of deceit and wrongdoing by the government. Because those most closely involved in the scandal did not testify, it was difficult for the committee to base their findings on hard evidence. Government members of the committee released their own report, labelling the main report as 'intellectually dishonest,' particularly through,

the use of "open findings", in the form of assertions that the Committee is unable to determine a question one way or the other - and thus leaving an air of doubt about whether wrongful conduct was engaged in - in circumstances where there is simply no evidence whatsoever to suggest that wrongful conduct occurred (Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident 2002, 478).

This line of argument was continued by the politically conservative commentator Piers Akerman, who noted that what, 'the committee wanted to hear was evidence that Mr Reith and the Government had concocted the children overboard incident to inflame emotions in the lead-up to the election and improve its chances ... the committee abjectly failed to prove this' (Akerman 2002).

The time taken to release the report also lessened the impact of the findings. The committee tabled the report on 23 October 2002, a year after the event and the election. The terrorist attacks in Bali on 12 October, killing 88 Australians, meant media coverage of the report was limited.

Intimidation and Bribery

The government implemented Operation Relex on 3 September 2001, giving the lead in 'border protection' to the ADF, rather than Coastwatch, as it was in the past. This meant that when SIEV 4, a rickety 20 to 25 metre vessel, was intercepted, it was by a warship. In line with procedure set out in Operation Relex, after the asylum seekers had ignored verbal warnings, the HMAS Adelaide fired warning shots in front of the SIEV. As part of their submission to the Committee, the asylum seekers onboard SIEV 4 believed the HMAS Adelaide had, 'fired warning shots to try and scare us and to force the captain to stop the boat' (Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident 4 April 2002, 286). There seems to be little doubt that the asylum seekers perceived the firing of warning shots as an attempt to intimidate them.

The intimidation and bribery was not only limited to the asylum seekers. Bureaucrats within the APS would have also felt uneasy coming forward with any information concerning the incident. As noted by Max Weber, 'bureaucracy has invented the concept of the "official secret" which means that information can be gathered and exact commands transmitted in a secretive way.   Individual officials can be penalised for divulging these official secrets to the public' (Weber in Allen 2004, 113). So although bureaucrats may not have been bribed directly, knowledge of the possible repercussions, such as job losses, may have led some not to speak. This may be why no whistleblowers came forward, which assisted the government in its attempts to maintain the cover-up.

Lessons to be Learnt

In their attempt to reduce outrage over the children overboard incident, the government implemented each of the methods specified in the backfire model: cover-up; devaluation of the target; reinterpretation of the events; official channels; and intimidation and bribery. The mistreatment of asylum seekers has led to the establishment of a number of activist groups in Australia, including Rural Australians for Refugees, Spare Rooms for Refugees, ChilOut, and Refugee Action Collective. These groups, along with a number of individuals, have been successful in putting pressure on the government for better treatment of refugees and raising the awareness of the Australian public. Recognising how the government attempts to reduce outrage may assist these groups develop strategies to counter similar government actions in the future.

To counter attempts at a cover-up it is important for activists to attempt to publicise as much of the concealed information as they can. This may involve research by the activists themselves or working with investigative journalists. The more information available to the public the more chance there is of the movement growing and threatening the power of the government. The investigations by The Australian leading to the revelations that the incident 'never happened' (O'Brien 2001) was important in putting the government under pressure in the days before the election and demonstrated the importance of revealing cover-ups. Unfortunately, this came too late to affect the election, meaning the government successfully covered up the truth until it was no longer politically damaging to them.

To counter devaluation it is important activists validate asylum seekers, for example by communicating to the public the asylum seekers' stories, demonstrating the torture and horrors they have experienced. It was also important to refute many of the claims made by the government, such as that asylum seekers were terrorists.

If activists had found proof that the photographs presented by the government were of a different event, the incident would have been much more damaging to the government. By exposing the reinterpretation of the photographs, much of the government's evidence would have evaporated. This is, however, extremely difficult, and as with countering a cover-up, the development of relationships with investigative journalists and whistleblowers is one of the best ways to counter the reinterpretation of what happened.

Activists often see official channels as a way to reveal to the public the truth behind a scandal. There is little doubt the Senate Committee report revealed much of the truth behind the scandal so, in this sense it was extremely useful. However, because of the delay and government non-cooperation, it also managed to reduce outrage. When activists use official channels they should be aware of the bias that may exist, and counter this by exposing the bias of those performing the inquiry and of the terms of reference.

Intimidation and bribery are very effective tools for a government intent on reducing outrage. It is important activists provide support for those being intimidated and bribed. A person is much more likely to come forward and expose their treatment and the truth behind the scandal if they have a wide support group. Exposing their treatment is also likely to lead to greater outrage.

There are many more effective techniques activists may wish to use in their aim to amplify outrage over an incident. The backfire model identifies the methods those in power are likely to use to inhibit outrage. Using this knowledge, activists will be better able to develop strategies that challenge the government's authority and bring about positive social change.


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