Bottomless Pit- Part One (1996-2001)

Table of Contents



The Labor Party had been on a roll since 1983 when Bob Hawke had resoundingly beaten Malcolm Fraser. As seems to happen regularly on either side of Australian politics, the Liberal Party went through a long period of infighting, and elected a series of leaders to try to counter the popularity of Hawke. Back and forward they went, from Peacock to Howard, back to Peacock- but to no avail. Next, John Hewson was enlisted, only to lose ‘the unloseable election’ to Keating in 1993.

By the following year, the Liberal Party was running out of potential leaders, so it foolishly embarked on what has gone down in history as The Downer Months- Alexander Downer with Peter Costello as his deputy. It was, as was expected, a disastrous 250 days.

Peacock and Hewson had gone, Downer was useless, there was only one solution left- bring back Howard, the man who had famously said that his chance of a comeback was like ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass.’

He must have had the operation, because he came back a new man- trimmed eyebrows, Carla Zampatti ties, new suits and glasses. As his political hero, Menzies, had done when he formed the Liberal Party half a century earlier, he appealed to the forgotten people, in this case the middle ground of voters disenchanted with what they saw as an out-of-touch Paul Keating.

Howard concentrated more on attacking the tired Labor government than he did on providing new policies, and it worked. Lazarus’s bypass was a success, the coalition winning office with a whopping 45-seat majority.

I remember the election night well. We were doing a gig at The Newport Arms Hotel in Sydney and, between the sound check and performance, I went out to the car, put on the radio, and was not surprised when I heard the result, though it was not the one I wanted.



Port Arthur, once a notorious and brutal penal settlement for the convicts of Van Diemen’s Land, has been a much visited Tasmanian tourism destination for over 40 years. Where once, inmates were desperate to find any way out, now visitors queue up to experience this remarkable reminder of a not-so-distant past where transportation, colonisation, and rough justice were the order of the day.

Sunday 28 April 1996 was a typically busy Sunday at the site, and at lunchtime the café was abuzz with diners. Among them was a 28 year old Hobart man, who looked like yet another tourist except for the bag at his feet which contained a semi-automatic rifle, and a knife which he had used to kill the owners of a nearby guest house. After he’d finished his lunch, he took the deadly weapon out of his bag and began shooting randomly, at first in the café, then in the grounds and beyond. His name was Martin Bryant, and by the time he had finished his rampage, he had killed 35 people and wounded many more. In the wake of the biggest mass shooting Australia had ever witnessed, Bryant was captured the next morning.

The following Tuesday the new parliament was opened. I was there, in the public gallery. I remember it well. Howard and the opposition leader, Kim Beazley, conferring behind the Speaker’s chair, then emerging to lead parliament through a series of bipartisan condolence speeches that told of the horrors of the massacre, and paid respect to the dead and injured.

On the fourth sitting day of parliament, John Howard gave a speech in which he strongly advocated changes to gun laws. The gun lobby was not happy, still isn’t. Furthermore, Howard’s main support came from those that would normally have been his opponents, and opposition from those who would normally have been his friends.

But Tim Fischer, then leader of the National Party, came on side with Howard, as did all states and territories, although it took some time. Within the first months of Howard’s leadership, the use of automatic and semi-automatic weapons was severely restricted, and a gun buy-back scheme was put in place. It was the first thing Howard did, and, these days, as more and more mass killings happen in the USA and the gun lobby holds sway, Australia is seen as a shining light.

It was a belief he had held for many years (he mentioned it in one of his Headland speeches on 6 June , 1995) It is one of the sadly few examples of a leader not taking the easy way out, and standing for something he believed in.

I was so impressed with the leadership Howard displayed, against odds, to carry this legislation, the envy of gun control advocates around the world. I remember saying to Moya ‘I think he might be OK.’ She replied ‘just wait.’

It didn’t take long to prove she was right.

For my song On Day One, which covers this story, along with Kevin Rudd’s apology speech, go to Bottomless Pit- Preface, published above this essay.



Pauline Hanson‘s parents ran a hamburger joint in Brisbane just near the Gabba, so it’s no surprise that in the late eighties she bought her own takeaway food outlet, Marsden’s Seafood in Ipswich. She wasn’t a fan of seafood, but had learned from her mum and dad that, if you want anything out of life, you have to work for it. She had a staff of five, the shop was open 7 days a week, her business prospered.

Hanson’s foray into politics began when she stood as an independent Ipswich City Councillor, then joining the Liberal Party and being pre-selected to contest the federal seat of Oxley at the 1996 election. Oxley was a long-time Labor seat, once held by former opposition leader and Governor-General, Bill Hayden, so wresting the seat from the ALP was a bit of a long shot.

Ipswich, like many country towns, experienced friction between black and white, and Hanson picked up on resentment, in some quarters, to what was seen as special treatment for Aboriginals. Early in 1996, in response to yet another black death in custody, Keating’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs was calling for an implementation of the recommendations from a royal commission that had looked into this issue for many years.

Hanson immediately penned a letter to the editor of the local rag, the Queensland Times.

Black deaths in custody seem to be Robert Tickner’s latest outcry. Pity that as much media coverage or political grandstanding is not shown for white deaths in custody.

She then continued on, in what the Liberal Party called a ‘calculated and callous attack’ on Aborigines. She was summoned to Brisbane to be told she was not wanted by the Liberals and, it was on the drive back to Ipswich, that she decided to run as an independent.

Hanson picked up votes from those who agreed with her from both sides of politics, and managed to win with a massive 19.3% margin.

It was her maiden speech in September 1996 that brought her to national attention.

I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40 per cent of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate. Of course, I will be called racist but, if I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country.

Prime Minister Howard didn’t come out against her attacks on immigration, multiculturalism and indigenous people. He seemed to have the attitude that, if he ignored her, she would go away. He, in fact, many years later, would utter words that were horribly reminiscent of that last sentence from the quote above.

When it came to my song about Hanson, I was inspired by this excerpt from her maiden speech.

I come here not as a polished politician but as a woman who has had her fair share of life’s knocks. My views on issues is based on common sense and my experience as a mother of four children, as a sole parent, and as a businesswoman running a fish and chip shop.

I imagined her Ipswich takeaway as the new centre of political thought, which, given that she did touch an ugly nerve, did represent a hotbed of opinion, shared by a sizable section of the population.

There’s a new seat of learning where philosophies are formed
It’s an eating and a meeting place of minds
Ideologies are born with every crumbing of the prawn
It’s a think tank and a fish tank intertwined

In the hallowed halls
Of the Ipswich fish shop
In between the squid and sardine
The head of research
The filleter of perch
The Dean, Pauline

Every idle conversation, like your thoughts on immigration
Will be noted, your opinion will be heard
And your vision for the nation, with your order for crustacean
Will become a proclamation every word

In the hallowed halls
Of the Ipswich fish shop
In between the squid and sardine
The head of research
The filleter of perch
The Dean, Pauline

Her mind is filled with your every notion
As she fries and grills the creatures from the ocean
Every old fish bone and every sav she batters
Is a new touchstone, yes every fish cake matters
And each sachet of tartare sauce
Will soon become an international force
She sets the scene, Pauline

There’s a new seat of wisdom where no reading is required
Yes it’s true, that’s where the newest paths are forged
Where your order for John Dory will become part of history
There is social change with every chip that’s gorged

In the hallowed halls
Of the Ipswich fish shop
In between the squid and sardine
The head of research
The filleter of perch
The Dean, Pauline.

Hanson formed the One Nation Party in 1997, with three members- herself, David Oldfield and David Etteridge.

Now, after 25 years of countless ups and downs, dances with the stars, a jail term, and numerous comeback attempts, she has risen from the ashes to hold a powerful position in the Senate, still listening to the equivalent of her seafood customers from all those years ago.


Marshall Perron, of the Country Liberal Party, was Chief Minister of the Northern Territory in 1995 when he introduced a bill to legalise euthanasia. On the day of the debate in the NT parliament he made an impassioned speech.

The terminally ill are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, wives and husbands – they are the flesh and blood of their kinfolk. In suffering, like us all, they embrace with tears, fears and sadness. They are not just ‘patients’; they are people. Mr Speaker, they are people like you. They are people like me. They are people like all those people in the public gallery. They are people like all those in the corridors and offices of this building. They are people like all of those in the streets. That is what we are talking about – real people. Let us allow each of them a personal choice. The freedoms that Territorians enjoy all their life should not come to an end just because life does.

After much scrutiny, amendments, and attempts at repeal, the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act was passed by the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly to be effective from 1 July 1996.

The way it worked was that, after all safeguards were fulfilled, the patient would press the spacebar on a computer keyboard to trigger the dispensing of lethal drugs. Four people died under the short-lived law, but Max Bell, a retired taxi driver from Broken Hill, who was suffering from terminal stomach cancer was not to be one of them.

I’m dying of bloody cancer. If you’ve got cancer you can’t enjoy a nice view, you can’t enjoy a nice steak. You’re a walking dead man.

So that he could end his own life legally, he drove to Darwin in his taxi, an old Commodore, from 8am to 3pm each day, staying in motels along the way. The 3000 kilometre drive was exhausting.

As well as being the subject of a 2015 movie, Last Cab to Darwin, Bell’s story is also the basis for my song, Top End. In the song, I used the exact wording that came up on the computer screen.

I’m going to the Top End
I’ve never been before
A trip to the Never Never
I’ve read the glossy brochure
There’s magic in Kakadu
Secrets in Arnhem Land
Wasn’t thinking of heading this way
But Fate had another plan

I’m going to the Top End
This time of year is fine
A trip to the Never Never
I might be some time
There’s magic in Kakadu
Secrets in Arnhem Land
Never thought I’d be heading this way
But Fate took me by the hand

If you press ‘yes’, you will be given, within 30 seconds, a lethal injection. Do you wish to proceed? Do you wish to proceed?

I’m going to the Top End
Across the dusty plain
Seeking peace in the Never Never
My body racked with pain
I never was a computer whiz
I never had the need
Now things are different for me
This time I wish to proceed

If you press ‘yes’, you will be given, within 30 seconds, a lethal injection. Do you wish to proceed? Do you wish to proceed?

Mr Bell’s case was the first to come up, and when it came to confirmation of his prognosis, and mental health status assessment, no doctor came forward for fear of legal repercussions. The cabbie had no choice but to return home to die a ‘natural death.’

The legislation was controversial, and was challenged unsuccessfully in the NT Supreme Court. So it was valid under territory law, but under Section 122 of the Australian Constitution, the federal government does have power to overturn the wishes of territory governments.

The two key MPs who challenged the NT were conservative Liberal Kevin Andrews, and Labor’s Tony Burke. All parties allowed a free vote on the issue, and, by March 1997, the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 was passed. The Northern Territory’s bill was vetoed.

At the time of writing, Voluntary Assisted Dying Acts have become law in Victoria and WA, with SA and QLD making moves in that direction. In NSW there is likely to be plebiscite on the question at the next election, not due till 2023. NT and ACT are still subject to federal intervention, as laid out in the constitution. The debate continues.


In May 1997, the report on the stolen generation (Bringing Them Home) was released by the Human Rights Commission. One of the recommendations was that governments apologise, which the Prime Minister rejected, saying that:

To do so is to indicate in some way that present generations of Australians are responsible and can be held accountable for the errors, wrongs and misdeeds of earlier generations.

Leading figures from all walks of life reacted to this rejection, and when Mr Howard set out on an overseas trip the next month, some of them clubbed together to pay for a full-page ad in the British newspapers attacking his stance on the issue. Consequently, on his arrival, the British press gave him a hard time about Hanson and race issues.

For this, and a number of other reasons, that trip received press coverage back home. Here he was at Lords, watching the second test between England and Australia, while other world leaders were in New York at the UN Earth Summit on greenhouse gas emissions. Foreign Minister Downer went in his place, and despite calls from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to get on board, our beloved leader argued that legally binding targets would devastate our coal- driven economy.

When he had an audience with the queen, he told her that the republic debate was not a frontline issue, and was simply

bubbling along in the background.

When he got to the US a week later, he caught up with his old foe Andrew Peacock, then Australian Ambassador to Washington, who threw a shindig for Howard at the Ambassador’s residence. It was a happy affair with back-slapping, a barbie, Aussie beer, a jazz band on the lawn, and an address by Mr H. At the do was Peacock’s ‘best friend’ Shirley Maclaine, who you would think has had so much plastic surgery that her eyes would be permanently open. But one word into Mr Howard’s speech and she was out like a light. She must have been thinking

(To the tune of Hey Big Spender)
Whenever you walked in the joint
I could tell you were a man of extinction
A real dull speaker
Good looking, so refined
I wouldn’t like to know what’s going on in your mind
So let me get right to the point
I don’t fall asleep for every man I meet
Hey dull speaker
Speak a little less for me

Wouldn’t you like to have fun, fun, fun
How about a few laughs, laughs, laughs
I could show you a good time
You’re like cocoa at bed time

So let me get right to the point
I don’t fall asleep for every man I meet
Hey dull speaker
Hey dull speaker
Hey dull speaker
Speak a little less for me.


Margret RoadKnight is a celebrated Australian singer whom I’ve worked with many times. She has a brilliant knack for digging out interesting material, but doesn’t write songs herself.

I’ve written a lot for her, and one of the key moments was in 1997, when she approached me with an idea for a song about immigration, based on the notion that we’ve all come in different boats, but we’re all in the same boat now. She told me that there were already songs out there that used this premise, but that none of them was based on the Australian story of immigration.

At the time the boat people were still coming to our shores, mostly from Asian countries. This was at a time when polls showed that many Australians were concerned about immigration numbers, detention centres had been introduced (under Paul Keating), and the Immigration Minister was advocating harsh measures, doing things like curtailing family reunion provisions.

In my song I took an historical approach, starting with our indigenous people, moving on to the first European settlers, then to post-war migrants, and finally the boat people.

When I finished it, I wanted to get Moya’s reaction to the song, so I sat at the piano in our studio and sang it. I had my back to her, and at the end of my rendition, hearing no response, I turned to see what she thought. She was in tears. I took that as a ‘yes.’

Countless thousands of years ago
The journey began
Fearless thousands in rough canoes
Dug out by hand
From island to island
Story written in sand
Beyond the horizons
To a Dreamtime land

Timeless seasons of wanderings
On ancient sacred ground
Till fearless pioneers from northern shores
Came sailing Southern Cross bound
Finding their sea legs
Watching albatross play
Through the wild Roaring Forties
Neath the Milky Way

And we’re all in the same boat now
Sea change behind us
And if one thing’s gonna bind us
It’s being in the same boat now

Homeless thousands in crowded berths
A soulful travelling band
To a world of opportunity
The sunburned, lucky land
Tying up in calm waters
Leaving homes torn by war
Casting anchors forever
By a distant shore

And we’re all in the same boat now
Sea change behind us
And if one thing’s gonna bind us
It’s being in the same boat now

Winds change, sails fill, masts fall
Bows break, seas roar, pirates call
Storm blows, and so the vessel goes where it must go
We’re passengers, together

Countless thousands in fishing boats
By moonlight secretly
Lives in the hands of the elements
Like wounded snakes in the sea
Adrift on the ocean
Under tropical sun
For these fellow boat people
New life’s begun

And we’re all in the same boat now
Sea change behind us
And if one thing’s gonna bind us
It’s being in the same boat now.

By the next year, the government was allowing police to board boats carrying asylum seekers, and the scene was set for harsher policies and dramas that would be part of the immigration debate for years to come.

(Same Boat recording features Worldly Goods Choir)


One of my main sources of information on the waterfront dispute of 1998 was a book called Waterfront: The Battle That Changed Australia by Helen Trinca and Anne Davies. On its cover was a testimonial from Phillip Adams.

The most thrilling thriller since The Maltese Falcon.

And he’s dead right, because this episode in Australia’s political history is an enthralling tale of conflict, full of deception and secrecy, a late night ambush, balaclava-clad security officers, guard dogs, union heavies, the rich and the powerful, political shenanigans, and more.

In the left hand corner of this sparring match was the MUA- a recently formed amalgamation of maritime unions that had ruled the waterfront for the good part of the twentieth century. The wharfies could bring the country to a halt, and from that position of power had become the highest paid blue-collar workers in the country.

In the right hand corner were those whose livelihoods were linked to productivity on the wharves- business owners, farmers, and the stevedoring companies, notably Patrick Corporation.

John Howard and his coalition colleagues had waterfront reform at the forefront of their minds when they came to power in 1996, and it was no surprise that within weeks of taking the reins, a report into the issue was commissioned. The government was strongly advised to play an interventional role, and by early ‘97 the government signed off on a strategy.

The intrigue began when some months later, MUA Secretary, John Coombs, received a tip-off that an ad was being placed in an Army magazine calling for 76 recruits to train in Dubai as an alternative waterfront workforce, at the very attractive pay rate of $70,000 for three months. It was now clear that a waterfront reform plan was being hatched behind closed doors, (despite ‘I know nothing’ comments from Industrial Relations Minister, Peter Reith, and Patrick’s CEO, Chris Corrigan.)

International leverage by the union movement was imposed, and the threat of a ban on Dubai ports was enough for the UAE government to withdraw permission for any training to take place.

So to Plan B led by the National Farmers’ Federation and their new training company PCS, with access to Australian wharves, again without public notice.

Then late on 7 April 1998, the shit hit the fan. Not even Patrick’s staff knew what was about to happen. But it was no surprise to the government when security men, some in white shirts and ties, others in black, some with guard dogs, all wearing baseball caps, descended on the docks in Melbourne and Sydney. Word spread to the pubs and soon MUA members and supporters were at the gates hurling whatever they could get their hands on- empty stubbies, bricks, golf balls and rocks.

Patrick’s sacked the entire workforce and replaced them with the PCS trainees, and redundancy payments for the wharfies were put in place, supported by the government.

It was twelve o’clock
Down on the dock
The moon was not quite full
Corrigan, that desperate man
He had rehearsed the script
He had the assets stripped
He was ready for attack
A sneaky stunt on the waterfront
It was a midnight sack
A midnight sack
A stab in the back
A midnight sack

Who’s the man, the government man
Who has blood upon his teeth?
This would be no mystery
But more of a Mister Reith
Yes Pig Iron Pete
With mud on his feet
Has left a tell-tale track
That leads to the spot
Where they hatched the plot
It was a midnight sack
A midnight sack
A stab in the back
A midnight sack

Oh, don’t the guards look cute
As they try to make the union cactus
Oh, in their security suits
It’s what they call the world’s best practice

Now they’re tucked in bed with the Farmers’ Fed
And together they all yawn
Insolvency’ they cry with glee
That’s what they call reform
They sing a lullaby
That goes Dubai, Dubai
And a tune by Bacharach
What the world needs now is a waterfront row
And a midnight sack
A midnight sack
A stab in the back
A midnight sack.

The Federal Court found that Patrick’s could not terminate the workers’ employment and a reinstatement was ordered. A month after the drama unfolded, half the workers were back, the PCS sacked its employees, and an agreement was signed by both parties.

Productivity improved, workers’ wages and conditions were rationalised, the workforce halved, the culture of overtime was broken, and consequently the government called it a victory. But it was achieved at a price, as its partisan role and conspiratorial involvement rendered it less than honourable in some quarters. The episode certainly was not a model of government transparency.


After the waterfront drama, the news was dominated by the government’s Native Title Amendment Act, which was a response to the High Court’s Wik decision of ’96. Even though an election was not due till the following year, this was seen as the most likely election issue, and had even been talked about as a possible trigger for a double dissolution election.

But when Howard called an early election, it wasn’t native title that was dominating the news, but instead it was the delicate subject of tax reform, specifically a Goods and Services Tax. I say ‘delicate’ because the Coalition had lost the ‘unloseable’ election in ’93 over the proposed introduction of a GST, and in, 1995, Howard himself had announced there would ‘never ever’ be one.

The notion of a consumption tax had been on the agenda since it was first recommended in a report commissioned by the McMahon government. Successive governments rejected the notion, although it was proposed at a National Tax Summit while Paul Keating was treasurer. The coalition was nervous about it, but things changed when John Howard was on sick leave with a bout of pneumonia. He says that it gave him time to consolidate his thinking on the subject, and the policy began to be formulated. A 10% GST would be proposed, Wholesale Sales Tax would disappear, the funds from the GST would go to the states which would, in turn, abolish certain taxes.

The coalition’s bold move was not entirely popular, with Kerry Packer writing it off as a bad idea, the ALP unsurprisingly mounting a scare campaign, and the polls indicating that the government might fall because of it.

With the help of One Nation preferences, the coalition was re-elected in the October 3 election, but with only 49% of the two-party-preferred vote, compared to 51% for the ALP. There was no chance of Labor supporting the bill in the Senate, so it fell to negotiations with the Australian Democrats, who held the balance of power. After much deliberating, which resulted in the exemption of certain items such as fresh food, the GST was enacted on 28 June 1999.

Canberra Times cartoonist Geoff Pryor drew a cartoon that depicted the GST as an infant being looked on lovingly by its doting parents- John Howard and Democrats’ leader, Meg Lees. It had as its caption ‘Baby GST’- a good hook for a song I thought. As we were working with Geoff on a show called Stop Laughing, This Is Serious at the time, I asked him for permission to steal his title. He gave it, and here is the resulting song, written coincidentally just a short time after John Howard was announced as NSW Father of the Year.

I am the bonny baby GST
My daddy’s Johnny Howard and my mummy’s Meg Lees
Oh I’m such a naughty kid as you can see
But I can’t help it, it’s hereditary

You see my mummy and my daddy made me what I am
They made me tax Kentucky Fried and caravans
They taught me to put 10% on books for school
And brought me up to like the taste of dirty diesel fuel

I am the bonny baby GST
My daddy’s Johnny Howard and my mummy’s Meg Lees
Oh I’m such a naughty kid as you can see
But I can’t help it, it’s hereditary

I’m the kind of baby only mum could love
That’s why daddy’s handling me with big kid gloves
I’m good for the economy, they say it’s true
I’ve taken after both of them, I’m full of wind and poo

I am the bonny baby GST
My daddy’s Johnny Howard and my mummy’s Meg Lees
Oh, I am the bonny baby GST
Why is everybody always picking on me?

My relations never visit me, I’m never hugged and kissed
Uncle Peter’s only just admitted I exist
And Uncle Kimmie never ever talks to me at all
And Aunty Natasha, she won’t play ball

Nobody loves me, everybody hates me
I think I’ll go and eat worms
I could open up a can of worms- maybe I already have

Now mum and dad, they say they’ve done the best they could
With a bundle of joy who’s just a tad misunderstood
I’m just a few months old and I can crawl and talk
I could become a problem child
When I learn to walk

Less for you and more for me.


In 1999, we had a regular Friday afternoon spot on ABC radio in Canberra, hosted by Rod Quinn. I soon got to respect cartoonists who have to come up with a gem every day of the week. Learning a new song can take a couple of days, so by about Wednesday I had to decide on a story, research it, write furiously, then teach it to Moya. Of course, some weeks were slow-news-weeks, and at other times the big story broke on the Thursday or Friday, so we were really on our toes. I remember one day when the news changed on the way into the studio, and I was rewriting as we were being announced. I quickly handed a page of scrawl to Moya and she sang the new lyrics.

The other pressure of the situation was to be funny, but one week the news was dominated by one topic that wasn’t funny- East Timor.

Colonised by Portugal for 400 years, the situation changed for East Timor in November ’75, after there was a bloodless coup in Lisbon, the Carnation Revolution, ending the longest period of European dictatorship ever. The new regime implemented a policy of decolonisation, and former colonies were left to their own devices. In East Timor, rival political groups vied for government, resulting in a very short-lived period of independence under the leadership of The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN).

Indonesia invaded in December 1975, just three weeks after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. In the lead-up to the invasion, Whitlam didn’t seem to raise too many objections, and this pragmatic approach to Indonesian-Australian relations went on to dominate the responses of successive PMs, from Fraser to Hawke to Keating.

For over 20 years violence, brutality and political instability held sway in East Timor, with significant events like the killing of Australian journalists in Balibo, and the Dili massacre.

When John Howard came in, he had no intention of challenging the status quo, but the change of Indonesian leadership from Suharto to Habibie in ‘98 saw a change of attitude to Timor. The choice that Habibie wanted was for the East Timorese to choose between autonomy under Indonesia or independence. To Howard’s cabinet, this marked the beginning of an unexpected shift in the Australian policy regarding this near neighbour.

In August ’99, a ballot supervised by the UN took place, and there was overwhelming support for independence (78.5%). Violence escalated, and eventually an international peacekeeping force, led by Australia, was installed.

It was at this time that we sang this on the ABC.

It’s Friday on the ABC
Our turn to sing comedy
But no one’s smiling across the sea
In East Timor

Another round of refugees
Walk down the ramp of the Hercules
Hear them talk of atrocities
In East Timor

There are no funny stories this week
No funny stories this week
Dili, ghost town, streets ablaze
Smoke in the nostrils, buildings razed
Hear the gunshot through the haze
Of East Timor

Hard words to say when your eyes are wet
But hard’s the best that it seems to get
In East Timor

There are no funny stories this week
No funny stories this week

The world remembers Balibo
As young peace keepers strike a blow
All dressed up and ready to go
To East Timor

Demonstrators shout aloud
Foreign policy under cloud
Past Prime Ministers are you proud
Of East Timor?

There are no funny stories this week
No funny stories this week

Timor loro sa’e ita rain
Rai Timor ita nia rain.

(UNAMET- the United Nations Mission in East Timor.
TNI- Tentara Nasional Indonesia, the Indonesian National Military.
The final two lines are from an East Timorese song).


Australia had been a destination for what we call ‘boat people’ since 1976 when thousands left South Vietnam, looking for safe haven. In 1992 with a spike in numbers arriving in Australia, the Keating government, with bipartisan support, established mandatory detention for all who arrived without proper visas. This was implemented in 1994.

Indochina was still the main source of arrivals, but disquiet in the Balkans after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the rise of the Taliban after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, gave the world new trouble spots, and new reasons to flee to safer havens.

The Taliban was a fundamentalist Islamic group that supported public executions, required women to wear the full burka, banned TV, music and cinema, and discouraged education for girls. By 1996, they had taken Kabul and provided a good reason for many people to feel persecuted.

Meanwhile, people smuggling had become a complex, organised operation with agents spread throughout different regions, recruiting passengers, creating transit to Indonesia, falsely promising acceptance in Australia, and often overstating the safety of the voyage.

All these factors led to an enormous increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. So new legislation was brought in to make people smuggling a crime, to have more powers to intervene on the boats at sea, and to provide residency in Australia on a temporary basis.

The detention centres were filling, and conditions were harsh. Protests were rife amongst detainees, and instances of psychiatric problems, self harm and abuse were being reported. The harshest of the centres was located at the remote South Australian outpost of Woomera.

This was the background to the song I wrote back then, called Detainee. The Woody Guthrie song, Deportee, was in my mind- the idea that those seeking asylum were being lumped together as a group of nameless people without their own stories.

He could have been a doctor
In North Afghanistan
If it weren’t for all the turmoil
And the bloody Taliban
And the home that is a bombsite
Hit by unfriendly fire
Now he’s sitting here down under
Staring at the razor wire

And the sun it keeps on beating
It scorches and it sears
And the sun can dry the earth’s crust
But it cannot dry his tears

The nightmare of the voyage
Is what he remembers most
In a boat designed for harbours
Or a day trip down the coast
An outing for the family
On the unforgiving foam
The leaks included in the price
Now he sits here alone

And the sun it keeps on beating
It scorches and it sears
And the sun can dry the earth’s crust
But it cannot dry his tears

For months he has been waiting
His crime it seems to be
Not queuing up politely
Now he’s a detainee
Woomeras are for launching
Spears into the air
He’s gazing at our golden soil
Advance Australia fair

And the sun it keeps on beating
It scorches and it sears
And the sun can dry the earth’s crust
But it cannot dry his tears.

(The recording of Detainee features Can Belto)


In 2001 there were some dramatic events that consolidated Australia’s approach to the whole asylum seeker/refugee/immigration situation.

The first of these was in August that year when a wooden Indonesian fishing boat with 400 asylum seekers, most of whom were fleeing the Taliban, was in distress, 140 kilometres north of Christmas Island. The engine had failed, and a violent storm had made the passengers extremely vulnerable. Australian surveillance planes spotted the boat, but instead of instigating a rescue, put out a call for help from any ships in the area.

A Norwegian container ship, the MV Tampa, responded, and although licensed to carry no more than 50 people, the captain honoured the rules of sea and took the asylum seekers on board. Little did he know that he was about to become the centre of a five-day political stand-off. The government stood firm that the Tampa would not venture into Australian waters. But the captain made the decision that it was the safest decision to make, given the intensity of the desperate pleas from the new passengers to be taken to Australia, not back to Indonesia.

We wouldn’t take them, nor would the Indonesians, so the government looked for other destinations. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer suggested Nauru, and thereby was born what became known as the Pacific Solution. Islands were to be excised, boats to be turned around, the Tampa’s passengers to be moved offshore, and the Tampa allowed to continue its voyage.

Then on September 11, two planes crashed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre in a brutal attack by Al Qaeda terrorists. The USA was talking of vengeance against countries that harboured the organisation, and Australia affirmed its commitment to the ANZUS Treaty. The enemy was Islam, the asylum seekers were Muslim, the murky blurring of immigration with terrorism was heightened.

After trailing in the polls, the coalition had a lift, thanks to matters of immigration and national security, and on October 6, with all this as the background, Howard called an election to be held in five weeks. A lot would happen in that period.

*   *   *

The dodgy fishing boats that have transported so many asylum seekers to Australia have historically leaked like sieves. So it’s ironic that the government acronym used to describe what is officially called a Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle is SIEV.

And, in yet another great moment in the history of acronyms, asylum seekers are referred to as SUNCs (Suspected Unlawful Non Citizens).

The final song in this essay is related to what became known as the Children Overboard Affair, which began after the HMAS Adelaide intercepted a SIEV off Christmas Island in 2001. Efforts to turn the vessel back towards Indonesia were met with resistance by the SUNCs, 14 of whom jumped, or were thrown, overboard. One of the passengers held a young girl over the side of the vessel, threatening to throw the child overboard or into one of the smaller naval boats that were next to the SIEV. Seven of the naval crew dived in and helped rescue those in the water (all adults, not one child).

While the drama was unfolding, the Commander of the Adelaide was on the phone to headquarters in Darwin. Thanks to the confusion of the situation, with maybe a bit of Chinese whispers thrown in, the story was relayed further down the line, and was soon about children overboard.

Soon, Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock, and Defence Minister, Peter Reith, were in the loop. Now it was official- SUNCs had thrown their children into the Indian Ocean, from the safety of a SIEV.

All of this happened during a federal election campaign, and when photos of two women and a child in the water were produced, the temptation to make political capital of the situation was hard to resist. The only problem was that staff of the Defence Department were doubting these photos were linked to this incident.

That didn’t stop Reith from releasing the visual ‘evidence’ photos to the press. When the Minister was informed by the navy that there was a video that showed no children overboard, he replied ‘Well, we better not see the video then’.

It is then that Howard uttered these immortal words- ‘But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’

In 2001, Prime Minister John Howard, Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock, and former Minister for Defence, Peter Reith, were all busily trying to find out just who was responsible for what has become  known as the Children Overboard Affair. Guess what! It was none of them.

(To the tune of Blame it on the Bossa Nova)
Blame it on the Public Servants
They’re dispensable
Blame it on the Public Servants
When you’re reprehensible
Well it all began with just one leaky boat
And those photographs that won the Liberal vote
Blame it on the Public Servants
The great scapegoats

Was it Peter Reith?
(No, no, the public servants)
Lying through his teeth?
(No, no, the public servants)

Phillip Ruddock?
(No, no, the public servants)
Talking through his buttock
(No, no, the public servants)
Or Honest John
(No, no, the public servants
Doing nothing wrong
(No, no, the public servants)
Or a department head
(Yes, yes, the public servants)
The great scapegoats.

Before the Tampa, September 11 and Children Overboard, the Coalition was behind Labor in the polls. But come the election that year, Howard managed to win a third term. Fear worked.


All songs and parody lyrics by John Shortis
Hey Big Spender by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields
Blame It on the Bossa Nova by Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann

Lazarus Rising by John Howard
John Winston Howard Biography by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen; The White Queen (One Nation and the Politics of Race) by David Marr (Quarterly Essay)
Waterfront- The Battle That Changed Australia by Helen Trinca and Anne Davies

Sydney Morning Herald June 1997
The Fight to End a Life by Gay Alcorn (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 1996)

How Tragic Events Unfolded at Port Arthur (SBS News, 27 April 2016)
Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996 presented by Kevin Andrews MP (Parliamentary Library 9 September 1996)
Marshall Perron’s 1995 Northern Territory Address (posted by Go Gentle Australia 14 November 2016)
East Timor and Australia’s Security Role, Issues and Scenarios by Dr Adam Cobb (Parliamentary Library 21 September 1999).