A migrant caravan, which has grown into the thousands, walks into the interior of Mexico after crossing the Guatemalan border. Picture: John Moore/Getty Images
A migrant caravan, which has grown into the thousands, walks into the interior of Mexico after crossing the Guatemalan border. Picture: John Moore/Getty Images

US migrant ‘caravan’ shaping up to be Trump’s Tampa

THE MV Tampa, which sailed to the rescue of Prime Minister John Howard in 2001 has been reanimated, this time in the form of a human caravan making its way toward the American border and promising political deliverance for US President Donald Trump.

It was seventeen years ago that then-PM Howard ruthlessly exploited the arrival of 433 people, mostly Hazaras from Afghanistan, into Australian waters on the Norwegian freighter the MV Tampa.

Crammed on to the decks of the ship skipped by Arne Rinnan, they had been picked up around 140 kilometre north of Christmas Island after their boat sunk.

Howard told them to go back to Indonesia. When Rinnan refused and entered Australian territorial waters, Howard sent in the Special Air Service Regiment.

It was in that period Howard gave us a famous line in his October 28 federal election launch speech which became part of the national vernacular.

Australians were the most open hearted and generous people on the planet, taking in more refugees per capita basis than any nation except Canada, Howard declared.

"But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come!''

Captain Arne Rinnan aboard Norwegian container ship MV Tampa, which rescued over 433 asylum seekers after their boat sank north of Christmas Island. Picture: AP
Captain Arne Rinnan aboard Norwegian container ship MV Tampa, which rescued over 433 asylum seekers after their boat sank north of Christmas Island. Picture: AP

Trump doesn't need Howard's political play book to figure out his moves in the present drama unfolding in America.

In just eleven days, as Australian celebrates the 2018 Melbourne Cup, Americans will go to the mid-terms, voting for 35 senators, 36 state governors, 435 members of the House of Representatives, and a host of legislative officials operating at a local level.

If the Democrats win control in either the House of Reps or the Senate, Trump's powers will be curtailed in his final two years of office, whittling away his chances of winning a second term in 2020.

Yet Trump, who always appeared to have luck on his side, has been gifted his own MV Tampa in the form of a swelling tide of migrants fleeing violence and poverty in their native countries (mainly Honduras).

They are still making their way up through Mexico towards the US border where they will demand to be let in. It hasn't helped the Democrats that they are reportedly chanting "yes we can'' in Spanish as they walk, echoing the slogan that brought the Democrats' saviour Barack Obama to power in 2008.

Trump, whose working class American base has already been fortified by a strong economy and significant jobs growth, is becoming ever more energised as he balefully eyes off that incoming tide.

"That is an assault on our country,'' he told supporters in Houston at the start of the week.

"In that caravan you have some very bad people.''

In that caravan you almost certainly have some very good people, cut from the same cloth of the millions of immigrants who have crowded into America over the past three centuries making it the most dynamic, innovative and successful democracy the planet has ever produced.

But Trump instinctively understands a fundamental truth about human nature.

Tribalism is among our most powerful emotions. The threat posed by foreigners has been deeply embedded in our brains ever since we first wandered out of a cave and saw the smoke from a distant camp fire.

Those working Americans who support Trump, gratified by the good economic news but concerned by his erratic personality, will be reassured when he echoes and amplifies their instinctive fears over the next week.

For Howard, those fears granted him a win over Labor's Kim Beazley who had won the popular vote in the 1998 election (50.98 per cent) and who was out-polling Howard until the Tampa sailed on to the horizon.

When the planes hit the twin towers on September 11 2001 it was all over for Beazley.

Those vague, ill-defined fears flickering in Australians after the arrival of 433 desperate and wretched people on the Tampa flared into a hysteria which gripped the nation for weeks and sent Howard back into the prime ministerial suite where he stayed for another two terms.

Howard left the Australian Labor Party in his dust as the ALP began a musical chairs round of leadership options, the impacts of which still echo today.

On Tuesday Trump tweeted:

"Sadly, it looks like Mexico's Police and military are unable to stop the caravan heading to the southern border of United States.

"Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in.

"I have alerted border patrol and military that this is a national emergency.''

Michael Madigan is a reporter with The Courier-Mail.



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