Leaky Boat: the documentary

I have now watched Leaky Boat three times. With each viewing I find my respect for it growing and my belief that it gives as fair and balanced a reading of those events as anything in this form could be expected to give.

The documentary is not propaganda.

Propaganda is what we were subjected to at the time the film re-presents.


from Responding to Terrorism using Ethical Means: The Propaganda Index PDF

Elspeth Tilley, Massey University, Wellington.

Apply that point by point to the way the government conducted itself during those months in 2001 and it becomes clear that is what we were being fed. I was not at all surprised by the revelations of attempted thought control from the top in the Howard government. There were other instances – so many that they were almost a signature of the regime – that came my way just as a humble ESL teacher. Sometimes we think of this as “culture wars”, but I really think it was a determined effort to disable whole areas of discourse and argument in favour of those the government wanted.  This is not a dead phenomenon either. Julia Gillard does it very badly compared with the Howard mob.

The revelation was not entirely new, either, though rarely has it been so chilling as in the documentary. See from 2003:

The Defence Force public relations department ran a campaign to ‘ensure that we adequately and effectively communicate government messages’, journalists were not allowed to quiz military officers, any press enquiry had to be diverted to Minister Reith’s office where it was stonewalled, and the military were instructed not to produce any ‘personalising or humanising images’, i.e. photographs, of asylum seekers. Marr and Wilkinson write that neither Reith nor Howard seemed keen to get to the bottom of the children overboard issue which, although the story died down, made its ‘indelible mark’, seeming to establish for some members of the community damning proof of the ‘base instincts’ of these ‘illegals’ from which the Howard Government saw itself as saving Australia.

The information in this documentary is substantial and coherent. It is also very persuasive.

Fascinating to me – because it conformed with the serving sailors I spoke to around that time – was the honesty and clear sight of the military.

What the documentary added to the picture for the first time, as far as I know, were voices from the boat people themselves.



Made a nonsense of Reith and his scrap-book – though it was interesting to notice that the iron man does have twinges of conscience. Watch it again if you don’t believe me!

One thing I was right about at the time is this:

Born in pre-election vote-catching expediency, morally vacuous, patently absurd, ad-hoc management–what else can you say about it? – 13 December 2001

But it hardened into a policy, as the documentary shows.

And in answer to Piers Akerman:

. But, I mean, so let’s just skip some of this emotive junk, because that was what this documentary was largely full of: women swimming in pools. I really didn’t see the relevance of that.

First there was very little “emotive junk” in the documentary – unless Piers thinks giving space to any voice but Howard, Reith and The Cadaver is “emotive”. The documentary was remarkably precise and substantive. On the other hand I too wondered about the women in pools – thought it maybe too clever. Here’s what the film-maker says:

The film’s second great visual challenge was to give form to our most important character: the Australian people.  This was an exercise in portraiture, in simple situations where people naturally and unselfconsciously gather and act as a group. We filmed faces moving in thecrowd, as well as capturing a sense of the whole. We weren’t looking for classic Australian postcard situations, like surf carnivals or Australian Day Fireworks. We wanted to see Australians together, as we are each day. So we filmed ordinary moments – commuters coming en masse off a ferry, parents watching their children’s swimming lesson. The situations are ordinary and familiar, but we’ve reached for fine composition and a lyrical quality to the images. We want to draw our audience in, to make them want to look at themselves. All of these images have a water background – ocean or river – to create a subliminal unity between life at home, and events far off on the Indian Ocean.

OK, that may or may not have become too obvious or heavy-handed!

Then another issue:


The voices of ordinary Australians form an important part of our narrative. This film is much more than an investigation into the actions of government: it’s very much concerned more primary ideas of how democracy works. Using  these first hand sources is a way of placing the Australian people in the  narrative, in the first person, as all other actors appear. The text is taken from  the words written and spoken by ordinary Australians at the time. Our sources  include focus group research, letters to editors and radio talkback.  

We’ve steered wide of predictable redneckery, and instead chosen thoughts that express impulses and concerns that are more universal and familiar, such as a basic fear of numbers getting out of control. The aim is to steadily hold a mirror up to our audience and rekindle in them some of their own feelings from this time.

Looking at the film three times makes me more comfortable with that. I think it does work.

By the way, I do not believe the film gives a bad image to the Australian people, just in case that’s what you think. Quite the opposite, in the end! How many countries have such a sane military?

So in the end I give the doco smiley-happy005smiley-happy005[3]smiley-happy005[5]smiley-happy005[7]smiley-happy005[9]!

  Most controversially, the documentary and the following QandA have convinced me that RACISM IS NOT THE SOLE OR EVEN BEST WAY OF ACCOUNTING FOR THE EVENTS OR MORE GENERALLY FOR THE IMMIGRATION QUESTION AT LARGE. It’s a distraction. This is not to deny the relevance of fear and xenophobia. I will be posting again on this referring more particularly to QandA.

After all, Howard’s actual immigration record was MORE DIVERSE and in many ways more generous than his predecessors.

Related reading

Obama, Rudd and a grammar for rhetoric in the National English Curriculum PDF by Kristina Love and Mary Macken-Horarik.

Burning towers and ashen learning: September 11 and the changes to critical literacy by Tara Brabazon.

On another area where Howard and Co attempted their own form of discourse control – multiculturalism – “a word not to be upon our lips!”

Europe has been having fits about this for some time now.  I have been known to post on it too. There’s a VERY sensible article –a great rarity – on this in The Boston Review: Europeans Against Multiculturalism: Political Attacks Misread History, Target Muslims, and May Win Votes.

But while it is hard to know what exactly the politicians of Europe mean when they talk about multiculturalism, one thing we do know is that the issues they raise—real or imagined—have complex historical roots that have little to do with ideologies of cultural difference. Blaming multiculturalism may be politically useful because of its populist appeal, but it is also politically dangerous because it attacks “an enemy within”: Islam and Muslims. Moreover, it misreads history. An intellectual corrective may help to diminish its malign impact.

Political criticisms of multiculturalism confuse three objects. One is the changing cultural and religious landscape of Europe…

The second object—suggested by Cameron’s phrase “state multiculturalism”—concerns the policies each of these countries have used to handle new residents…

The third object that multiculturalism’s critics confuse is a set of normative theories of multiculturalism, each of which attempts to mark out a way to take account of cultural and religious diversity from a particular philosophical point of view. Although ideas of multiculturalism do shape public debates in Britain (as they do in North America), they do so much less in continental Europe, and even in Britain it would be difficult to find direct policy effects of these normative theories.

Politicians err when they claim that normative ideas of multiculturalism shape the social fact of cultural and religious diversity…

12 thoughts on “Leaky Boat: the documentary

  1. Neil. this is a thoughtful post – thank you. Your previous entry mentioned ‘incandescence’ whereas I think most of us suffer from the slow steady burn of acute embarrassment as to what was and is still being done, in our name, by our elected representatives. I think both feelings are genuine, but I think incandescence is less effective. But that’s just me, quietly determined that somehow ‘the system’ will be changed. Aside from that, I’m surprised you seem to have only lately accepted/realised that this is not, and never has been, an issue of ‘racism’? That ploy was uncomfortable even to my parents in the 50’s and 60’s – and I don’t think it has been used since in any significant way.

    Jim Belshaw made a comment yonks ago that ordinary Aussies seem quite comfortable with the acceptance of ‘new people’ within their community – but the puzzle remains why this is such a fraught issue when moved to the national stage. I think that’s a fair comment, and I wish I knew the answer.

    And Happy Birthday! You’re not yet in ‘bonus territory’, but when you get there, I wish you a large one.

  2. Racism is relevant, but that is for the next post. In brief, though, I certainly know people whose concern about asylum seekers is quite definitely based on racism, xenophobia or Islamophobia. Screaming at such people, however, usually has no effect,

  3. I meet people like that as well. But I wouldn’t waste breath on them, because I believe they are a very tiny minority; just an inevitable part of the Bell Curve.

  4. Hi Neil (and KVD). My complaint about the swimming pool scene lay in its irrelevance. It completely took me away from what had been quite gripping viewing. The views expressed by the former senior military in particular were quite remarkably frank.

    As you know, I read a lot of local newspapers. One of the things that I have been meaning to write looks at two linked dimensions of the broader change process. One is the way that smaller local communities welcome those from different backgrounds. The second is the role that local government plays in facilitating social acceptance.

    You won’t see much written on the second, but I think that it’s quite important because local government is a bit of a gold fish bowl.

    • I can see what the filmmaker was trying to do with the swimming scenes but I also wondered what they were about at first.

      As for the “broader change process” and local areas, I see what you mean. It is interesting that one of the former boat people interviewed lives now in Shepparton. However, the documentary itself had a particular focus on the events from Tampa to SIEV-X. In that it was brilliant.

  5. Your premise that this “documentary” was not propoganda is nonsense. The continuing and repetitive images of fat,over-fed, Australian people lazing around on the beach then a flash back to the poor “dehumanised” something (I won’t call it asylum) seekers on the boats was as good propaganda as the Nazi’s would use. Please explain why this image was used over and over again? I would be interested in your “spin” on this. Bloody obvious to me: It was saying “We xenophobic, fat, rich, over-fed , lazy Aussies , lazing around on the beach don’t want these freeloaders coming to our shore”. Subtle propaganda at its best!.

    • If you want to see it that way I guess you can, and there may be something in that. What you say is not that far from what the filmmaker says.

      So we filmed ordinary moments – commuters coming en masse off a ferry, parents watching their children’s swimming lesson. The situations are ordinary and familiar, but we’ve reached for fine composition and a lyrical quality to the images. We want to draw our audience in, to make them want to look at themselves. All of these images have a water background – ocean or river – to create a subliminal unity between life at home, and events far off on the Indian Ocean.

      The fact remains that the detail presented of the events and the people concerned is in my view as close to objective as can be. What you or I might think of it all is another matter. In comparison with the images favoured at the time this documentary is not propaganda but rather antipropaganda.

  6. These people should be allowed to enter Australia by boat or anyway these people are only coming here because they need to i strongly recommend you read ‘boy over board’ ‘broken glass’ ‘Torn paper’ and ‘spilt water’ you will see how bad life is in all of asia…

  7. Pingback: This was meant to be a comment on current affairs… « Neil's final decade

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