Julia Gillard’s address to the Lowy Institute last week was titled “Moving Australia forward”, one of the cliches of our time. No doubt it will be given a thorough workover before the election. In the interests of formulating policy on the contentious issues of immigration, refugees, asylum seekers, unauthorised boat arrivals and all that, it is appropriate to look backwards and confront some prevailing myths.
The exaggerated, and sometimes intolerant, comments by opponents of asylum seekers are a matter of public record. But asylum-seeker advocates, who inflate figures and fudge history, do not help the cause of rational debate.
In The Age last Wednesday Julian Burnside, QC, wrote: “It is easy to forget that the Fraser government received about 25,000 Indochinese ‘boat people’ each year, without a murmur from the community”. Both comments contain significant errors. That evening Paul Barclay, presenter of the Radio National program Australia Talks, elaborated on the Burnside claim by asserting “during Malcolm Fraser’s government 25,000 refugees arrived by boat per year and there was bipartisan support for it”. This is hopelessly wrong.
Now for some facts.
As James Jupp points out in From White Australia to Woomera, “70 years of controlled immigration intervened between the introduction of White Australia and the end of the war in Vietnam” in 1975. In other words, before Fraser no Australian prime minister had to deal with unauthorised boat arrivals.
In 1976, the first year of Fraser’s government, 111 people arrived by unauthorised boats. As the former prime minister acknowledges in Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, by the end of his government almost 70,000 refugees “had settled in the country, only 2059 of whom were boat people”. In other words, the figures cited by Burnside and Barclay are simply incorrect.
About 97 per cent of Indochinese who settled in Australia during Fraser’s prime ministership were processed in offshore centres in such places as Indonesia and the Philippines and arrived by air with valid visas. One of the reasons there was so little opposition to Indochinese refugees in the late 1970s and early 1980s turned on the fact their arrival was authorised.
In the 1970s it was the left of Australian politics who opposed Indochinese refugees, primarily because they were anti-communist. As the former Whitlam minister Clyde Cameron pointed out in his book China, Communism and Coca-Cola, Gough Whitlam said the would not tolerate “f—— Vietnamese Balts coming to this country with their religious and political hatreds”. In my correspondence with Whitlam, published in The Sydney Institute Quarterly in 2003, the former Labor prime minister did not deny Cameron’s assertion.
On the eve of the 1977 election Bob Hawke (then ALP national president) opposed the unauthorised arrival in Darwin of the Song Be 12 and declared: “Any sovereign country has the right to determine how it will exercise its compassion and how it will increase its population”. John Howard used similar terminology before the 2001 election. After the coalition’s 1977 victory, there was effective consensus on the issue for the remainder of the Fraser government.
Contrary to Fraser’s undocumented recent assertion, there is no documentary evidence that Howard opposed Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s. However, he did call for a reduction in the percentage of Asian immigration a decade later.
In 1992 Paul Keating’s Labor government introduced mandatory detention for unauthorised arrivals, including children. This was a response to a new stream of asylum seekers from Vietnam. Many asylum-seeker advocates who pilloried Howard over mandatory detention said nothing at this time.
In 2001 Howard hardened the provisions designed to prevent unauthorised boat arrivals. His actions included offshore processing. Howard was responding to arrivals numbering 3721 in 1999, 2939 in 2000 and 5516 in 2001. The coalition eased the administration of this policy after 2004, following a steep decline in the number of arrivals.
On Sky News on July 4 the GetUp! activist Amanda Tattersall alleged the Howard government’s decision to turn boats around led “350 people [to] die on the Siev X”. This is wrong and a grievous insult to the navy. The Senate Select Committee for an Inquiry into a Certain Maritime Incident, which included Senator John Faulkner, found no evidence “for believing that negligence or dereliction of duty was committed in relation to Siev X”.
Last week the Prime Minister announced her government was discussing with East Timorese leaders the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre for asylum seekers. Labor is responding to a spike in unauthorised boat arrivals of about 2750 last year and about 3000 this year so far.
New Zealand is sometimes presented as a more welcoming country than Australia. Under the refugee and humanitarian intake, Australia accepts 13,750 settlers each year. The relevant figure for New Zealand is just 750. To match Australia on a per capita basis, New Zealand should have an annual intake of at least 3500.
As Gillard has pointed out, unauthorised boat arrivals are not high when compared with Australia’s total migrant intake. Yet the fact remains, since Federation in 1901 the largest number of such arrivals occurred on Howard’s – and now Gillard’s – watch. As democratically elected politicians, it is understandable both coalition and Labor leaders – in their differing ways – have decided they should respond to public concern.
Despite the current emotion, offshore processing has worked in the past and it may work again. A sense of history should be of assistance in helping to resolve the matter.