Janet Albrechtsen's Moral Compass


In September 2003, Philip Ruddock celebrated 30 years in Federal Parliament. To mark the anniversary, Janet Albrechtsen wrote an opinion piece (‘Tribute to a moralist under fire,’ The Australian, 17 September 2003) honouring the record of public service of ‘this father of the house,’ who was at that time still Minister for Immigration. The accompanying illustration portrayed Ruddock standing in a rainstorm, with a gleaming halo that deflected most of the rain.

In her encomium of Ruddock, Albrechtsen claimed to speak for ‘history.’ History would not record, she said, ‘his grey suits, the colour of his skin, his facial expressions, the sound of his voice, his hobbies (stamps), his background (middle class).’ Rather, according to Albrechtsen, history would ‘record the facts and even up the ledger in favour of Ruddock.’ History would record the reduction in the number of refugee boats coming to Australia, and it would record that ‘Australia has one of the largest per capita refugee and humanitarian resettlement programs in the world.’

Image by Hive Communication

Albrechtsen has argued that those who oppose the Government on asylum questions ‘need to reset their moral compass.’ (‘Activists betray their refugee bias,’ The Australian, 3 September 2003) In contrast to the histrionics of ‘compassion junkies’ is dear old Phillip Ruddock, who ‘works on, quietly, producing genuinely compassionate outcomes for refugees.’

Warming to her theme for Ruddock’s 30th anniversary , Albrechtsen painted Ruddock as a man who ‘endures it all with a quiet dignity few of us could muster. He carries on doing a job few of us could do, making difficult decisions few of us will have to face,’ whose moral compass ‘remained pointed directly at those most in need.’

This July, however, marks another anniversary of a milestone in the career of Philip Ruddock, one that seems to have gone unrecorded by ‘history,’ according to Janet Albrechtsen.

Ten years ago, on 14 July 1997, 92 people were deported from Port Hedland Detention Centre to China, in an operation codenamed ‘Operation Ox.’

As acting Immigration Minister in the absence of Ruddock, Amanda Vanstone issued a media release the following day, which said that those deported ‘had not engaged Australia’s protection obligations and had exhausted all avenues to remain in Australia.’ Vanstone concluded that ‘the Australian Government appreciated the continuing high level of co-operation shown by the Chinese Government in the return of people who arrive in Australia unlawfully.’

One of those on the plane from Port Hedland was a heavily pregnant woman, Zhu Qing Ping. Ms Zhu had been transferred to Port Hedland as an unauthorised non-citizen after arriving by boat in Darwin in November 1994. Following two unsuccessful applications for refugee status, she pleaded to be allowed to stay in Australia until after the birth of her second child.

When the plane left Port Hedland, Zhu was 36 weeks pregnant, with a due date of 12 August 1997. A week after her arrival back in China, she was forcibly aborted  at Beihai Hospital, and was billed for the procedure .

Zhu’s story was not publicly known until Senator Brian Harradine asked questions about forced abortion in China in a Senate Committee hearing in 1999. Harradine noted that there were at least two other pregnant women who had been forcibly aborted when returned to China by the Australian Government.

After Senator Harradine’s questions in the Senate Committee, Ruddock at first claimed that it was ‘highly unlikely’ that a heavily pregnant woman would be sent on an international flight. At any rate, he added, Australia did not have an obligation ‘to take every pregnant woman from China’ although he did concede that abortions late in a pregnancy are ‘highly undesirable.’

When a Senate Inquiry was set up in May 1999, Ruddock and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Alexander Downer, instructed their departmental representatives not to answer questions about the case of Ms Zhu instructions that were overruled by the Senate Committee.

Zhu’s ‘removal’ to China was also the subject of a Ministerial Inquiry, resulting in the Ayers Report, presented to the Minister on 9 September 1999. In announcing the completion of the report, Ruddock noted: ‘Mr Ayers found that the Chinese woman had an abortion in the PRC when she was eight and a half months pregnant. However, he was unable to reach a conclusion about whether or not that abortion was forced.’ Ruddock ordered that the Ayers Report not be published or released out of a concern for Zhu’s privacy.

Who is responsible here? Certainly, ‘the hand that signed the paper’ of 14 July 1997 was that of Amanda Vanstone. But Ruddock had refused to intervene in any such cases before that date.

The third person in this little nest of vipers was the Prime Minister. In an interview with 3AW on 18 June 1999, Howard praised Ruddock’s ‘skill and care’ in relation to Zhu’s case, arguing, ‘The lady has returned to her hometown in China there were a number of assurances about her safety, about her position which were given by the Chinese Government.’ He concluded by noting that sympathy for Zhu was mostly misplaced:

On the other hand we respect the fact that she is a citizen of China and it must of course be remembered that she originally entered Australia illegally and it’s very important that Australia be able to have a cooperative relationship with the Chinese Government regarding the return of people who come to this country illegally.

It is not only those who perform the acts, but those who honour the perpetrators, who deserve censure and blame.

When it was suggested that the Ayers Inquiry should be broadened to include the other two pregnant women on the plane from Port Hedland, Philip Ruddock refused to do so. On 24 June 1999, an ABC reporter asked  Ruddock about these other pregnancies:

Reporter: Philip Ruddock, what do you know about these pregnancies? Do you know how advanced they were, for a start?

Philip Ruddock: Well, I do. I think the first point that should be made of course is that we’re talking here about people who were unlawfully in Australia, and the responsibility under the Migration Act of people to be removed. But certainly there were not people involved who were late late term, as the case with the lady that prompted the initial investigation.

Reporter: So it wasn’t late term. You can’t tell us exactly what sort of stage they were at?

Philip Ruddock: Well, I can tell you one of them was several weeks, and the other was I think around about five to six months.

If it is unclear what an abortion involves at ‘around about five to six months,’ or even earlier, Janet Albrechtsen has described it vividly in one of her own columns as ‘the death of a baby.’ (‘Women’s rights can sometimes be wrong,’ The Australian, 11 August 2004) On that occasion, she was castigating ‘doctrinaire’ feminists for their ‘silence’ around abortion.

It is now exactly 10 years since Ms Zhu was returned to China, forcibly aborted, and her child killed. Some have asked if this could be the single most immoral action ever carried out by the Howard Government. Neither Vanstone nor Ruddock nor Howard has ever apologised or publicly expressed any remorse for their part.

The silence around this abortion is almost complete. But to honour any of those complicit in that act suggests the absence of any moral compass at all.

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