Secret records give 9/11, Tampa insight

Dominic Giannini |

John Howard jetted home from the United States following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
John Howard jetted home from the United States following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Previously classified cabinet documents from 2001 have shed light on a watershed year that forced national security firmly to the forefront of Australian politics.

Then-prime minister John Howard was struggling in the polls ahead of the 2001 election before his government’s pivot to Australia’s national security needs in the wake of the September 11 attacks and Tampa crisis.

He committed troops to the US military intervention of Afghanistan on October 4, 2001 and called the election the very next day.

A campaign centred on national security and immigration policy resulted in Mr Howard winning, against the odds, his third consecutive election.

Historian Dr Christine Wallace called the ‘khaki election’ and military events on the campaign trail by Mr Howard “the most explicit exploitation of national security optics” in almost 50 years. 

The Liberal leader stood by his decision to block the Tampa ship carrying 433 refugees from docking in Australia, laying the groundwork for Australia’s refugee policy for the next two decades.

He accepted there was no doubt the focus on national security garnered support for his government but believed he would have still been returned as prime minister, just on a smaller margin. 

The extent of disagreements over the government’s climate policy were also revealed, with duelling between the then-environment minister Robert Hill and industry minister Nick Minchin. 

Last year’s release of cabinet documents from 2000 noted the two ministers’ disagreement, with Mr Minchin opposing abatement action at every turn, but the new documents reveal Mr Hill was not alone in his concerns.

Comments from Mr Hill’s environment department on a submission by Mr Minchin slammed “(the) cursory treatment of climate change and other environmental issues (as) not proportionate with their significance for energy policy”.

It also raised concerns that rapid and significant emissions growth from energy market reforms had been overlooked.

Dr Wallace says the cabinet minutes relating to the climate discussion reveal the Howard government had a more nuanced view on climate change than any subsequent government and the views of ministers pushing for more action were not always summarily dismissed.

The trove of cabinet documents also reveal the government’s dismissal of a national apology to the stolen generation and rejection of a treaty with Australia’s First Nations people.

The cabinet decided an apology was not appropriate “given that the practices (of family separation) were at the time believed to be in the best interests of the children concerned and were sanctioned by the laws of the time”.

It also rejected financial redress for victims of the stolen generation, saying it was neither an appropriate nor practical way to help heal the trauma. 

There were 218 cabinet documents in the latest release, which is fewer than the 250 the national archives aims to release. The contents of the documents can be made public from Saturday.

COVID-19 lockdowns in the ACT impacted the gathering and reviewing of some of the documents.