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Anthem: An Act of Sedition (2004)

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clip MV Tampa and September 11 education content clip 1, 2

Original classification rating: M. This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

News footage of the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa carrying over 400 rescued asylum seekers off the coast of Australia is accompanied in a split-screen by barrister Julian Burnside QC who outlines the international laws protecting asylum seekers. The events of September 11 two months later in New York are shown. Rita Lasar, whose brother died that day, relates events as she remembers them. In voice-over, filmmaker Helen Newman says that overnight the asylum seekers in Australia were labelled as 'terrorists’ in the media. Legislation is passed which sees the asylum seekers detained on the island of Nauru. Lawyer Eric Vadarlis is shown in dismay at the court’s decision. Newman’s voice-over questions the meaning of democracy.

Curator’s notes

The filmmakers do not attempt to be dispassionate observers in Anthem and clearly place themselves within the narrative as they struggle to come to terms with recent events. Cambis and Newman have been ambitious in their scope with the making of Anthem and this clip is a strong example of their attempt to draw many complex events together in order to understand how they are related. In this clip, the Tampa crisis in Australia leading up to the 2001 Federal election is set against events in New York on September 11. Newman argues that the two events were conflated in the Australian public’s minds, resulting in what she calls a ‘race election’ and the implementation of the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ which allowed asylum seekers to be held in offshore detention centres while their claims for asylum were being processed. It is a bow that has been drawn by many commentators since who have written about the current ‘climate of fear’. Newman’s and Cambis’s attempts to try and understand the source of this fear are a core part of this film.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip presents an interpretation of the Howard government’s response to the arrival of refugees in Australian waters on the MV Tampa in August 2001. The narration states that John Howard had often used scare tactics for his political advantage and that the refugees were now to be used in a ‘race election’. Views defending the refugees are juxtaposed with images of troops. Scenes of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York dramatise the narration, which states that the government used fear of terrorism to override international law and civil rights.

Educational value points

  • This clip from a polemical documentary represents the then prime minister, John Howard (1939–), as a cynical politician who used the rescue of asylum seekers by the Tampa and the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York to create fear, undermine the rule of law and secure a win in the November 2001 election. The clip suggests that the Howard government used the crises as an excuse to create the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’, which it claims denied asylum seekers their rights under international law.
  • The Norwegian cargo ship MV Tampa, seen towards the start of the clip, rescued 438 people from a sinking boat on 26 August 2001, but the Howard government refused the Tampa permission to dock at Christmas Island. By 29 August the desperation of the passengers led the captain to attempt to land under conditions of emergency but the government sent SAS troops to board the ship and prevent it from landing.
  • Howard succeeded in winning a third term in office in November 2001, partly as a result of his government’s actions over the Tampa asylum seekers. Earlier in 2001 opinion polls had shown that Labor was the preferred governing party but, by September, polls showed that 90 per cent of Australians supported the Howard government’s refusal to allow the Tampa refugees to land on Australian soil. Support for the government also increased after the September 11 attacks.
  • In introducing the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ the Liberal-Nationals coalition government argued that tough measures were necessary to protect Australia from increasing numbers of asylum seekers, who it regarded as being illegal and a potential threat. The legislation, passed on 26 September 2001, excised many islands from Australia’s immigration zone, including Christmas Island. This meant that an asylum seeker had to reach the Australian mainland to have grounds for applying for refugee status.
  • While the Government’s actions were overwhelmingly supported by public opinion at the time, the clip presents the view that these actions were not legal. Julian Burnside, QC (1949–) condemns the ‘Pacific Solution’ legislation as being a clear-cut infringement of international law, and another lawyer sees it as being undemocratic. Nevertheless, the Federal Court had validated the ‘Pacific Solution’, requiring offshore processing of asylum seekers.
  • The clip demonstrates some of the features of polemical filmmaking, in which the filmmakers feel passionately about the issue being depicted. In this case no attempt is made to present the case for the Howard government, the narration puts its views strongly and the use of dramatic footage heightens the sense of crisis, reinforcing the filmmakers’ view that these events marked a serious attack on civil liberties and democratic processes.

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