Author Peter FitzSimons recently completed a documentary on the history of race riots in Australia. The first episode of “The Great Australian Race Riot” aired on SBS on January 4th.
FitzSimons wanted to include the 2001 riot at the Woomera Detention Centre. However, then Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison (yes, him again) refused FitzSimons access to the long-closed facility, and demanded the crew not film within 150 metres of the site.
“That furiously annoyed me,” says FitzSimons. “We couldn’t shoot in Woomera itself, which staggered us. We were attempting to take a serious look at a sometimes difficult multicultural society.”
This is a deliberate attempt by the Abbott government to control a historical record of racial unrest in Australia.
The 2001 Woomera riot took place on the Howard LNP government watch. It is a period steeped in turmoil over asylum seekers arriving here by boat. It was at this time the notorious Tampa stand-off took place,causing an international incident between Australia and Norway as well as profound domestic political unrest as then Prime Minister John Howard made his infamous declaration: “We will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come.”
Howard exploited populist xenophobic fears incited by Pauline Hanson, then leader of right-wing One Nation, a conservative, anti multicultural political party. Co-opting Hanson’s xenophobic policies, Howard attracted her voter base and went on to win the 2001 federal election.
Woomera Detention Centre was central to the combination of circumstances that elevated the exploitation and incitement of xenophobia and racism to the central platform they remain for both the LNP and the ALP to this day. That period began what has become an increasingly isolationist and inhumane Australian response to the global problem of stateless persons.
The treatment of asylum seekers imprisoned in the Woomera and Baxter detention centres marked the beginning of increasing public acceptance of the state’s dehumanisation of those fleeing persecution, and laid the ground for popular acceptance of Morrison’s narrative of border protection. Morrison’s alleged “war” against waterborne asylum seekers has been used to justify the ludicrous and sinister secrecy in which the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is now irrevocably steeped.
It is astounding that the Abbott government has in this instance successfully engineered the recording of Australian history to exclude any reference to the Woomera riot. Fortunately many records of these events exist. Morrison and Abbott are fighting a losing battle if they believe the voices of this period of our history can be silenced. Indeed, their attempts to control information appear increasingly desperate and naive, as they consistently fail to recognise that what one attempts to omit from the narrative eventually becomes the narrative, and all they are left with are increasingly sullied reputations drenched to the bone in lies, secrets and guilty silence. History eventually will judge Morrison and Abbott, and the Australian Labor Party, and find them all excruciatingly wanting.