The lead-up to the 2001 Australian federal election will be remembered more for a boat-load of asylum seekers, and for new language -“ Tampa, children overboard, Pacific solution -“ than the political posturings that led to John Howard’s remarkable victory.

Dark Victory, a new book by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, investigates the carefully constructed refugee operation, which involved reversing a nation’s policy on boat people, locating havens in the Pacific to intern them and forcing boats back to Indonesia.

The book follows the day-to-day workings of the Australian Public Service and its interactions with the government in the months leading up to the election.

It presents evidence of an increasing politicisation and compliance within the Australian Public Service, and points to an ineffectual press, unable to grasp and expose the reality of the Tampa affair.

What emerges is a disturbing picture of a nation steeped in xenophobia as Australia is placed within an international context and seen as failing in its humanitarian responsibilities.

Key to the success of the Tampa operation was high-ranking public servant, Max Moore-Wilton, then head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

I think an enormous amount of the success was due to his quick, brilliant combination of charm, bullying, demands, his organisational flair, his capacity to be right across a crisis and all directions at once, Sydney journalist and Media Watch presenter Marr says.

In those months in Canberra it was all -˜make it happen’. That was what Max was telling senior public servants, -˜Find a way, make it happen, solve the problem.’ Not, -˜Should we do this? Where will this lead us?’ It was that culture that stopped people from blowing the whistle.

Marr believes it was the public service environment that had an impact on what the press reported. One of the safeguards of government in any country has always been the willingness of people who know to blow the whistle on government lies.

The -˜children overboard’ debacle could have been stopped in its tracks by a single phone call from three or four senior military figures to Laurie Oakes. No one leaked. They should have, he said.

The inability on the part of the press to come to grips with the complexities of the Tampa situation was also due to their failure to question the limitations placed on their own reporting.

The lack of federal opposition to the government’s refugee policy was another factor contributing to a lack of comprehensive press coverage.

It was hugely difficult for the press because the opposition was not opposing -“ and if you wanted to oppose what was going on in the press, you were kind of on your own. There was no one really you could report on as an opponent of those policies of Canberra -“ Beazley and Howard were both supporting them.

In Dark Victory Prime Minister John Howard emerges as a singularly clever politician with a quick tongue.

You can understand now why reporters had such a hard time of it, because [Howard’s] language is very slippery. He knows exactly what he can say in apparently dull, rather flat sentences. He can convey an impression which is wrong while never lying.

Marian and I came away from this, full of amazement at the skill he has at misrepresenting things.

Dark Victory is published by Allen & Unwin and is available now.

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